The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Implied Meanings

Posted on | August 1, 2020 | No Comments


The word “negro” is simply Spanish for black, and for many decades “negro” was the term preferred by Americans we now call black or African-American, e.g., the United Negro College Fund, founded in 1944. Deriving from a Latin root, “negro” had the connotation of being scientific (because Latin is the language of science) and was therefore preferred by the educated classes of the 20th century. More colloquially, black people were called “colored” (e.g., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and both “negro” and “colored” were used interchangeably by well-meaning white people with no intent to insult or offend. When did this change and why?

In the late 1960s, immediately after the triumph of the Civil Rights movement, young former activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, which had organized the lunch-counter “sit-in” protests against segregation) decided to go in a more radical direction than that pursued by Martin Luther King Jr. Led by Stokely Carmichael, these radicals at SNCC purged white members from what had been a biracial coalition and embraced the slogan, “Black Power.” Thus black became a signifier of radical youth, as opposed to the older, respectable, middle-class “negro” or “colored” civil-rights movement.

“Black” had a militant, revolutionary connotation in the late 1960s, and was associated with the violence perpetrated by the Black Panthers (e.g., the assassination of Judge Harold Haley in 1970) and later by the Black Liberation Army (e.g., the Nyack armored car robbery in 1981). The adoption of “black” as the preferred racial term was thus, in part, a concession to a terorist threat, although most younger white people at the time began using “black” simply because that was the cool thing to say; after about 1968 only old fogeys said “negro” or “colored.” And so the change in language marked not only a political shift, but also a generational divide. People of my father’s generation, to say nothing of my grandparents’ generation, were reluctant to adopt the new terminology and in the late 1980s, when some black activists began insisting on the pretentious multisyllabic “African-American”? Well, suffice it to say that this change did not find a widespread acceptance among older white people at the time. But I digress . . .

Two weeks ago, Roger Stone was involved in a controversy about his alleged use of the word “negro.” After President Trump commuted Stone’s sentence, he was interviewed on Morris O’Kelly’s talk-radio show:

At one point, Stone and Mo’Kelly are discussing the charges brought against Stone, which included lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of a congressional committee, and why other people in the administration hadn’t faced the same kind of investigations and inquiries. Mo’Kelly pointed out that while certain people are treated differently in the federal justice system, Stone’s relationship with Trump made him different than most defendants.
“I do believe that certain people are treated differently in the federal justice system. I do absolutely believe that. But I also believe that your friendship and relationship and history with Donald Trump weighed more heavily than him just wanting to make sure that justice was done by a person in the justice system, that you were treated so unfairly,” Mo’Kelly tells Stone. “There are thousands of people treated unfairly daily. Hell, your number just happened to come up in the lottery. I’m guessing it was more than just luck, Roger, right?”
There’s a pause, then what sounds like Stone’s voice can be heard telling someone on the other end that “I don’t really feel like arguing with this negro [sic].”

Stone denied saying this, but what would it signify if he did say it?

Certainly, we must assume, if Stone did say “negro,” he did not intend for this to be heard by O’Kelly’s black listenership, who would find it offensive. And because Stone is a very intelligent man, his choice of “negro” in the context of a remark uttered sotto voce to someone present on his end of the phone conversation must be interpreted as significant — but what did he mean to signify?

Well, Stone has denied saying “negro,” but it seems to me that if he did say it, he would have used the word with intentional irony, because an intelligent person does not use an archaic term any other way. It’s as if one were to call someone a half-breed, a mulatto or a quadroon — terms that once had common usage, but which are now considered obsolete.

If I may appoint myself spokesman for the Caucasian-American community — because, really, who is more qualified to be the Al Sharpton of crackers? — I would guess that an intelligent white person using the word “negro,” in the context of expressing irritation, would expect this word to elicit laughter. Roger Stone is known to be a man who enjoys a joke, and he could not have intended “negro” any other way.

You see we are in the terrain that Jeff Goldstein calls “intentionalism,” where people are disputing what they believe someone meant by saying something deemed offensive, but where the person who allegedly said this disavows any offensive intention. Roger Stone is a Republican, and most black Americans are Democrats, so that it is very easy to accuse Stone of racism with the expectation that he will be convicted of the charge in the court of public opinion. Stone is far past the point in his career where “cancel culture” matters much to him, but this controversy highlights the way in which language conveys implied meaning — connations of social or political significance — that are distinct from the literal definition of words. And I think also we must be concerned with what George Orwell warned about, namely the way in which political control of language leads to a totalitarian regime of thought-control.