Racially offensive term causes too much furor

June 23, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Warren Brown was the only black journalist in the room when an executive with Jaguar Cars used a racially offensive expression during a press briefing in Washington last month.

John Crawford, who was Jaguar's vice president in charge of public affairs at the time, used the term "nigger in a woodpile" while trying to explain how a rival car company supposedly was botching industry attempts to overturn the luxury tax on high-priced autos.

Mr. Crawford lost his job when the remark was publicized. Mr. Brown, who covers the auto industry for the Washington Post, believes Jaguar executives overreacted.

"To me, what he said was no big deal," Mr. Brown was saying the other day. "The phrase was offensive to me, yes. But it was clear from the context that Crawford wasn't trying to be offensive. He wasn't being snide or derogatory. He wasn't making some kind of social commentary. So, what's the big whoop?"

Mr. Brown was a bit testy when we spoke. Weeks had passed since the incident and Mr. Brown still was getting phone calls from other blacks accusing him of being a "sellout" for not taking immediate umbrage at Mr. Crawford's remark, for not demanding that Mr. Crawford be fired.

"We get so worked up over transient issues," Mr. Brown continued angrily. "I've done stories pointing out how automobile dealerships discriminate against blacks and women, and I didn't get one call from a black reader. I've done stories about the absence of blacks in the industry's corporate boardrooms and no one expressed outrage over that fact.

"Why don't people ask why Jaguar doesn't have any black executives or why blacks don't own any Jaguar dealerships?" he continued.

"For that matter, why don't they demand to know why I was the only black journalist in the room? No, we're going to get all worked up over a word."

Mr. Brown's point -- that blacks are focusing their energies fighting the wrong battles -- is worth considering carefully.

A few weeks ago, when the Denny's restaurant chain agreed to pay $46 million to blacks in Maryland and California, it was the largest monetary settlement in the history of the federal government's enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Denny's had been accused of systematically discriminating against black patrons. In Maryland, plaintiffs will receive from $35,000 to $15,000 apiece as part of the settlement, certainly a healthy hunk of change. But what have we really achieved?

Says John P. Relman, one of the lawyers in the case: "It puts a price on the indignities that black Americans endure every day at restaurants and public places all across America."

But, suppose instead of taking Denny's to court, a group of blacks had spent the past three to four years putting together financing for their own restaurant chain, making it clear to both investors and consumers their reasons for doing so? Would this have been difficult? Of course, but the payoff would have been so much greater.

People of all races would have an alternative place to eat; a black-owned enterprise founded with a mission to provide good service, equal employment and franchise opportunities to people of all races -- all the things Denny's now promises to do as part of the settlement.

Moreover, businesses that discriminate are far more likely to change their practices in response to stiff competition than to government edicts.

This is not to say that individuals and institutions that violate the civil rights laws should go unpunished.

"But," notes Mr. Brown, "we cannot lose perspective. The ills that afflict the black community are not going to be eliminated just because one little executive loses his job or one company has to pay out a few million dollars in penalties. I think we are straying away from the values of self-help that sustained our community through the darkest days of segregation."

As I say, this is something we should think about. After alleged acts of discrimination, we keep demanding sacrificial lambs. And companies keep serving them up for us.

Maybe corporations find such sacrifices easy. That alone ought to impel us to reconsider our tactics.

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