By now if you live in the District you’ve surely heard of the latest Marion Barry scandal. No, I don’t mean the unfortunate police sting which elicited those (in)famous last words “b**** set me up,” I’m talking about the straight-up race-baiting, anti-immigrant antics and commentary about Asian-owned businesses and Filipino nurses. And now that I’m not writing about this topic for class, dear readers, I’m excited to share my thoughts more casually with you.
The first point is pretty obvious, but worth mentioning: Hill (1995) found that public figures are treated differently when it comes to being publicly racist/homophobic/bigoted in general. They are given a certain level of responsibility above ordinary individuals to maintain a certain demeanor which typically precludes them from being openly racist. [Why? Voters are one easy reason.] Unless that’s your shtick of course, in which case an entirely different set of rules apply.
Racists can’t/don’t often admit to being racist. It’s the equivalent of linguistic suicide, an example of what sociolinguists might call a face-threatening act. Combine this with point #1 and increasingly aggressive journalistic practices, linguists are finding that politicians are developing and using an array of linguistic strategies for getting themselves out of messes their mouths have created. Clayman (2001) calls this “managing interactional resistance” and the subfield of CA (conversation analysis) has made significant contributions as a whole. Check out more of his work here, many articles are available for free download.
But who has a say in determining if someone said something racist anyway?
Not the courts, at least here: Chiang (2010) points out that the US stands apart from industrialized nations in not protecting individuals (and groups, as the case may be) from hate speech. In those countries that do, it’s called group defamation, encompassing libel and slander. Furthermore, Chiang finds that because free speech so commonly trumps hate speech legislatively, public discussions of whether X was racist or not get distracted by ideological debates on Constitutional provisions.
Erickson once referred to conversations as “trees that climb back.” If that’s true, perhaps this is a large, public conversation then. The 24 hour news cycle and sensationalizing angle of media plays a role in this, editorializing till the end. But while the media may surely be the loudest, the level of public outcry/outrage is important as well. Dedicated advocates do their best to push back, but the current is unbelievably strong.
In Barry’s (and most cases it seems) the white flag comes as an apology. Then what???? Another incident, with the media drive stories, advocates adding fuel to the fire, and the saga continues.
In Barry’s case, the story continues to develop. Who would have guessed that an unexpected hospitalization during a taxpayer-funded conference in Vegas would prompt such a change of heart? Tune in this morning (5/24) for live Twitter coverage of the press conference where Barry addresses the public on his anti-Asian remarks.
And the fojol brothers.? Don’t even get me started….
[UPDATE (5/25): Barry has semi-public meeting, won’t allow media in for the “apology” itself. Also, uses the disparaging term Polack to describe Polish, prompting yet another apology request from the Polish American Association.]