Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why are European Americans So Afraid of Young African American Men?

From time to time I get into a conversation about racism, and I usually make some remark about the relationship between our current racial problems and slavery. It’s not unusual for people to challenge me on that. The argument is something to the effect that since slavery is over and done with, 150 years in our past, how on earth could it have anything to do with our current problems?

Hard to know where to begin. But think about this. A huge number of Americans are afraid of young black men. Especially young black men who are physically large. Especially large, young black men who appear to be armed. Now ask yourself why that is. Why should a large, armed, young black man be more intimidating than a large, armed, young white man? Why is it that a young black man is so often seen to be threat while a young white man is not? Why is it that an unarmed black man can be shot by police but an armed young white man can walk around in public with impunity? Why? It is because of the legacy of slavery.

History is one of the things that conditions us. It is not the only thing, to be sure, but it is one of the things. Our behavior is learned, after all, and one of our most powerful teachers is history. And consider this: during the time of slavery, white Americans lived in terror of slave rebellions. I would argue that this was because those white Americans know perfectly well that slavery was immoral and that the enslaved could not but be angry. They knew perfectly well that the enslaved were not content with their lot. And they knew perfectly well that there were the occasional uprisings. But be that as it may, the truth is that whites, even those who were not enslavers and merely stood by without protest, lived in terror of slave rebellions. 

It is naive to think that this terror simply vanished when chattel slavery was outlawed. It didn’t. It continued. Of course it did! It was part of what created the American Reign of Terror we call Jim Crow, and it was part of what created the ghettos in the cities of the North. “Keep ’em corralled where we can keep an eye on ’em because they are dangerous” was the attitude. And at a certain level, we European Americans knew perfectly well what we were doing to African Americans. We know perfectly well that segregating African Americans was wrong, immoral, anti-democractic. We continued to be afraid of the consequences of what we were doing.

And we still are. We imprison African American men at a far higher rate than European men. An African American man is far more likely than a European American man to be shot by police. State after state to continue to create ways of excluding African Americans from voting. And those ghettos? They still exist, but we don’t call them that any more. We call them neighborhoods. But the dynamic of racial segregation still within our “neighborhoods”.

And it all goes back to our history of slavery. It is the legacy of slavery. Until we are able to face that legacy and that history honestly and with  integrity, it will continue to haunt us.

On the Importance of Grammar (Not To Mention Diction)

I was recently called a grammar Nazi because I corrected a friend for using an adjective as an adverb. I take that to be a compliment. In this particular case, the error was not all that serious because the meaning was clear even with the error, but, of course, that is not always the case. I was not really trying for a “gotcha” either, though it may have appeared to be one. (If so, I apologize.)

The real point was not even the actual grammatical error. It was something else. I have noticed over the last several years an increasing blurring of the difference between our formal use of English and our informal use, and that bothers me. Formal English, which is what most writers (except, perhaps fiction writers and poets) use has very strict rules (grammar) and usages (diction). These rules are important and are not arbitrary and easily dispensed with. They are essential to the facilitation of communication because they make meanings clear and unambiguous.

Informal English relaxes these rules, which is useful in day-to-day speech where such rigor and clarity are not important. For example, informal English permits the occasional in-fix (the insertion of a word or syllable within a word), as in the split infinitive, or the double negative. There are even words that are acceptable in informal English that are not acceptable in formal English, for example “ain’t”.

Why is the difference important? Language is a very complex thing, and there is more to it than just grammar and vocabulary. There is also tone. I do not mean tone as in musical pitch and timbre. I mean tone as in that which conveys context, importance, solemnity, and so on. Tone is the difference between a speech and a lecture. Formal and informal English carry very different tones, and the confusion of them results far more often than is healthy in confusion of meaning.

To be sure, the distinction between formal and informal English is not and should not be a hard and fast one. The ability of one to absorb usages from the other is one of the ways in which language changes over time. There was a time when contractions were rare in formal English though common in informal English. It appears to me, though, that the boundary has become so porous in recent years that there is a danger of confusing the one for the other, with the result that formal English could become so attenuated as to nearly disappear. And that would be a grave loss.

Or so I think.