NAACP Head: Word Flap Handled Wrong
Jan. 28, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The chairman of the NAACP says Washington Mayor Anthony Williams acted in a ``niggardly'' way by accepting the resignation of an aide who offended some people by using that word in a conversation.
``You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding,'' Julian Bond said today, noting ``niggardly'' means stingy and has no offensive connotation even though it sounds similar to a slur.
``This whole episode speaks loudly to where we are on issues of race. Both real and imagined slights are catapulted to the front burner.''
David Howard stepped down after receiving complaints about his use of the word in a conversation with other city officials.
Williams, who is black, accepted the resignation of Howard, who is white, saying initially that his aide showed poor judgment even though he ``didn't say anything that was in itself racist.''
The mayor backpedaled a bit Wednesday, the day after Howard resigned. The mayor said an investigation was under way and Howard might return to the staff _ in a different job _ if he's ultimately judged to have done nothing wrong.
``Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on this issue,'' Bond said pointedly by phone. In addition to being chairman of the largest civil rights organization, Bond, who is black, teaches at the University of Virginia and is a student of language.
``We have a hair-trigger sensibility and I think that is particularly true of racial minorities,'' he said. ``These affronts do happen, they are expected to happen, and even innocent parties can find themselves victims.''
Sentiment on the street was split.
Some residents say Howard, a former Williams campaign worker who handled citizen complaints for the mayor's office, is guilty only of poor word choice. Others say he should have realized ahead of time how the word might be wrongly received.
``There's quite a bit of hubbub, quite a bit of buzz about it,'' said Kojo Nnamdi, black host of a public interest talk show at WAMU radio. ``It's indicative of the state of race relations in Washington. A simple explanation should have sufficed. When it comes to race in Washington, apparently a simple explanation doesn't get it.''
Jim Deely, a 49-year-old white advertising manager who grew up in Washington, says it was only a misunderstanding. ``Howard resigned too soon and Williams accepted it too fast,'' he says.
Godfrey Clarke, 54, a professional painter who was born in Trinidad and moved to Washington 31 years ago, says Howard shouldn't have resigned at all.
``People make a big deal,'' said Clarke, who is black. ``It's just politics. You make a little mistake and you're in hot water.''
But Marcus Marshall, 22, a black employee in a sporting goods store, said Howard did the right thing in stepping down. ``I don't agree with him saying that kind of word. He should be punished because it's so close to ... a degrading word.''
Dictionaries and other language references trace the word to Scandinavia and attribute no offensive meaning to it. It is not even in the Forbidden American English, a dictionary of 1,400 ``highly offensive and often inflammatory'' words and phrases.
But the possibility of confusion is raised in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a new reference published by Oxford University Press. The word has no connection to the racial slur, the book says. ``Even so, some speakers and writers have come to shun it just to avoid misunderstandings.''
Author Bryan A. Garner, who is white, said modern sensibilities should be taken into account when using legitimate but problematic language. He recalled an incident at the University of Texas when a professor called a Supreme Court ruling ``niggardly'' in class and black students asked later whether he had insulted them.