Remember, words have social consequences

January 31, 1999|By Paul Delaney

IF DAVID Howard had been a city official in Fargo, N.D., rather than Washington, D.C., he'd probably still have his job.

Instead, the assistant to Mayor Anthony Williams turned in his resignation in the wake of the fury that erupted from his using the N-word during a staff meeting. Well, the actual word that came out of his mouth was "niggardly," which is unrelated etymologically to the similar-sounding word that is an inflammatory racial slur.

It is one of those words that can -- and did, in Mr. Howard's case -- trigger political and social emotions sometimes way out of proportion to the initial act.

Mr. Howard admitted using the word and said he resigned after rumors spread throughout Washington's government that he had uttered the taboo word.

The former director of constituent services said he apologized after explaining that the word meant miserly or stingy. He had used it to describe how cautious he would have to be with agency spending.

He is correct. Technically. Dictionaries define niggardly variously as miserly, avariciously, parsimoniously and stingy.

However, it is one of those words best used with caution and sensitivity, especially in a place like Washington, which is experiencing a racially uneasy time. Things are so difficult there that even after accepting Mr. Howard's resignation, Mr. Williams said he would investigate the matter and possibly reassign Mr. Howard to another job -- dragging the issue out even further.

The nation's capital, a predominantly black city, has a history of fighting for statehood and home rule. It saw its rights snatched away by Congress under former Mayor Marion Barry, and Mr. Williams has helped the district regain most of those rights.

For the past 30 years, it has been widely rumored in Washington's black community that "a plan" exists that would have whites regain control of District government.

Reverse migration

And whites are moving into Washington in droves, but that fact does not account fully for the declining black-white population ratio. Middle- and working-class blacks are moving out, mainly to the Maryland suburbs. But the feelings persist.

The last election fed blacks' fears, when the Ivy League-educated Mr. Williams, regarded by some blacks as not black enough, succeeded the more militant Mr. Barry.

Mr. Williams sailed to victory in the Democratic primary as the darling of white businesses and voters. Also, he has appointed a number of whites to top positions in his administration.

But more significantly, the City Council became predominantly white for the first time.

Thus, when one of Mr. Williams' white staff members used a word so close to the N-word, trouble was inevitable. Rumors of racism flew, fueling turmoil in the ranks of city government.

Mum's the word

Perhaps now, the mayor and his administrators will realize that they will be under scrutiny and be on guard against similar verbal slips, innocent and inoffensive as their language may seem.

Regarding such words as niggard and niggling, I simply don't use them or the most offensive N-word. And I hold my breath when others do.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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