I recently had the displeasure of experiencing some racism in my personal life. A racist white person felt it was proper, while drinking a beer near me (I’m an African American), to use the word “nig*er” to disparage the language skills of a 3rd party. The person who made the racist remarks was a drunk whose opinion is of no consequence to me. What I did find to be disturbing was the way that several other people attempted to justify his racist remarks. Each of the rather poor justifications that were given, and my responses, are below:

“Black people use that word all the time so its OK for white people to do so too.”

This justification rests on the premise that the ignorance and stupidity of some of my fellow African Americans should be imputed on to me. That is a plainly ridiculous suggestion. I have no control over what words some other black people choose to use, nor am I responsible for their poor choice of words. When I hear such such poor word choice, I try my best to correct it.
For example, I’m sure that I could find some Jewish person who finds concentration camp jokes to be funny, or some Polish person who finds racism directed towards Polish people to be funny – but that obviously doesn’t mean that all Jews or Poles would find such racism to be entertaining, or that finding such people would give me a license to make racist remarks.

“He didn’t mean anything by it… he says that word all the time.”

When I first heard this justification, I thought it was a joke. The fact that one makes racist remarks all the time is further evidence of deep seated racism – not proof that one is not a racist.

“He is just a Southerner, it’s all he knows.”

This justification is also devoid of any merit. So because someone grew up in the Southern part of the United States they can be as racist as they wish? I don’t think so. First, I know many people from the South who are non-racist, morally upstanding, all around great people. Many of my family members live in Florida and neighboring states. The suggestion that Southerners are all a bunch of racists is insulting to the good people I know from that part of the country. Also, were we to just grant a pass to racist Southerners, then the situation would never change, as each subsequent generation would have racist values instilled by their racist parents. I don’t care where someone grew up – this is 2008 and racism is just not tolerable these days.

“Oh don’t pay any attention to him when he is drunk. He doesn’t mean it.”

Again, I disagree. Being drunk does not plant racism in the mind of a decent person. Instead, alcohol just lowers inhibitions, causing people to say what they might otherwise have kept to themselves. Blaming his drunken state is no excuse, any more than voluntary intoxication is an excuse for wife beaters or drunk drivers.

“It is his free speech right to say racist things anyway.”

I am a huge supporter of free speech, however free speech is not the issue here. The First Amendment protects the right to free speech from Governmental interference. This means that Federal, State, and Local government cannot (generally) punish or silence speech, including racist speech. [Threats, yelling fire in a crowded theater, etc are a different story, of course.] Free speech protection does not apply to individual social interactions. If a person makes a racist remark in my home, I have every right to expel them. If I’m in the home of a person who makes a racist remark, I’m free to leave. If I have an employee who makes racist remarks, I can fire them. If I have a friend who makes racist remarks, our friendship can come to an end. Free speech rights only deal with the Government, and are (generally) inapplicable when dealing with private parties.

“That word doesn’t apply to you – you’re such a well spoken and educated black person”

Yes, I am a well educated African American who has a firm command of the English language. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t take offense to racism. I’ve been harrased by the police numers times while going about my peaceful and lawful business, because a racist cop saw a large black guy, rather than a law student or computer programmer or scuba diver or wannabe light aircraft pilot. Indeed, my first memory of the police was when they wrongfully detained my mother, father, and I when a store clerk falsely accused us of shoplifting. I dealt with racism in a school where I was one of about five black children. Even nowadays, I’ve had people cross the street to avoid me when it is dark outside, even when I’m wearing a suit and carrying a backpack filled with my lawschool books. I’ve know other African Americans who have suffered great physical harm at the hands of a racist. I also know that my (future) children will face racism.

Above all else, I would like to point out that the real problem was not the racism of some drunk slob. It is the way that other people chose to tolerate his racism and even attempt to justify and explain it away. As it has been said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”