Who Are You Calling A Racist?

Former President George W. Bush flared against critics who called his response to Hurricane Katrina racist. Rapper Kanye West said during a 2005 telethon for hurricane survivors: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." The president responded: "That really hurt. You can disagree with my politics, but don't ever accuse me of being a racist." Host Michel Martin discusses the oft times murky intersection of race with language with linguist and author John McWhorter, and Luke Visconti, author of the DiversityInc.com column "Ask the White Guy."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes we'll have my weekly Can I Just Tell You? commentary. I'll tell you about a bumper sticker I see on my way to work. That is later.

But first, we want to talk more about a word that we've heard quite a few times in the past week or so and every now and again. The word is: racist. And this time it came up with the release of former President George W. Bush's new memoir. Now, for those who don't know the back story by now, it involves rapper Kanye West. In 2005, during a telethon to raise money for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. West went off script and blurted this out.

(Soundbite of telethon)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): George Bush doesn't care about black people.

MARTIN: President Bush revealed in his new book that that comment represented what he said was one of the lowest moments of his presidency. Here's what he told NBC anchor Matt Lauer about that.

(Soundbite of NBC Interview)

Mr. MATT LAUER (NBC News Anchor): You remember what he said?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes I do. He called me a racist.

Mr. LAUER: Well, what he said was: George Bush doesn't care about black people.

Pres. BUSH: That's because he's a racist. And I didn't appreciate it then and I don't appreciate it now. I resent it and it was one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.

MARTIN: Since then, Kanye West apologized, sort of, for those words because he says he has a new sensitivity about what it means to be called a racist. But we still wanted to ask, did he call the president a racist? And what exactly does that mean anyway? Now, it seems to be a subjective question. So we wanted to call upon two people who've thought quite a lot about language and about race.

John McWhorter is a linguist. He's author of the book "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English." He's also the author of a book, "Winning the Race Beyond the Crisis in Black America."

Also with us is the author of the column titled "Ask the White Guy" at diversityinc.com. He's Luke Visconti. He's the founder of DiversityInc., he publishes the magazine and consults on matters of diversity.

Thank you both so much for joining us, gentlemen.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Linguist; Author, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue"): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (Founder, diversityinc.com): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Luke, is racism like obscenity?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think racism could be defined even further than that. I think that if you consider the root of racism, it can only be directed from a position of power. So if a person is speaking from a position of power as white people would be to black people in this country - as measured by economics, that's the position of power - then you really can define it, I think, very exactly.

MARTIN: How do you define it in this case? Do you think he was calling President Bush a racist?

Mr. VISCONTI: No, he didn't call President Bush a racist. He said he doesn't care about black people. And I think that later he amended that to say, well, I can see that he doesn't care about anyone, you know, in particular, you know, just a sidebar, black people. But I don't think that remark was racist and I don't think he was calling President Bush a racist.

MARTIN: But that's what President Bush heard. So, why do you think that that's what he heard?

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, if you think about what President Bush said, which that remark that Kanye West made was one of the low points in his presidency and you consider everything else that happened during that eight years, to call that one as the lowest point speaks very loudly about the man himself. And so I look at what was said and how it was received as, well, frankly, it's not as important as what exactly was said.

Mr. MCWHORTER: I think that...

MARTIN: Mr. McWhorter, what do you think? Do you think that Kanye West was calling the president a racist?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yes. And I think that we would have to see what he said within the context of what was in the general conversation at that time, which was that there was a lack of regard to what was going on for the victims of Katrina and that the reason for that was because they were black rather than white. And I think we all remember how common it was on the vine to say that if the people threatened were shiny, happy white people with split levels, that somehow there would've been a very different effort in 2005.

Because the fact of the matter is that nowadays we have established - and this is good in this society - that being a racist is troglodytic and that's something that's in the water in our society now in a way that it was not, as recently as 40 years ago. And so when you call somebody a racist, it's almost like calling them a pedophile.

And so Kanye West made that claim from above. The idea was to whip up all of the rest of us into identifying George Bush's racism. And so he made Bush a victim, in a way, oddly enough, given all the things that Bush did during his presidency, which, for the record, I did not agree with. I'm not, contrary to popular belief, a Republican. But Kanye West was using a really big stick in saying that. And I think it's interesting when called upon it, he seems embarrassed and retreats. Because, really, what he did was the act of a bully. That's all it was.

MARTIN: You think Kanye West was a bully?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Kanye West was definitely the bully in that situation.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Because he made a claim about George Bush and it's very much like calling somebody a child molester. It's about the worst thing that you can be accused of being, and Kanye West made that charge as a multimillionaire, as a massive pop star, as an icon of sorts and as a representative of what is considered to be a historically, and even present day, oppressed race. It was an aggressive act, and just like somebody who beats someone up might not be comfortable watching a film of themselves doing it, it's not surprising how itchy Kanye West sounded to actually listen to himself doing what he did during the Matt Lauer interview.

MARTIN: Now given that we are not talking about Kanye West, you know, picking on Taylor Swift, okay, at a music awards ceremony, but the former president, who was at the time the leader of the free world, Luke Visconti said that he thought that President Bush was being a narcissist in taking it as hard as he evidently did. And I do think you can see the emotion, you can hear the emotion in his voice. You can certainly see it on his face in the course of the interview that he did about it. Do you think his reaction was justified?

Mr. MCWHORTER: In our society to be called a racist is practically equivalent to being called somebody who likes to have sex with children. I am not exaggerating. And one indication of that is that somebody who was as deeply unpopular a president as George Bush could take it as even significant that a rapper called him a racist, I believe that for him that really would have been one of the lowest moments of his presidency. Because the sting of being called a racist is so potent that even if you are the president of the United States and the leader of the free world, if somebody with a certain kind of influence, and hip-hop has a very powerful influence, calls you a racist, then wow, that can throw you off of your game like almost nothing else could.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about that dustup between President George W. Bush and Kanye West, and we're digging into the question of did Kanye West call President Bush a racist and was he justified in taking offense as he did. To have that conversation, we've called upon John McWhorter. He's a linguist. He's an author of many, many books and also a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and Luke Visconti. He authors the "Ask the White Guy" column at DiversityInc.com.

Luke, you wanted to respond to that.

Mr. VISCONTI: And I think the sting was because he heard those comments sitting on a couch some place instead of being there physically in New Orleans like LBJ was when New Orleans was hit by a hurricane during his presidency. That's what the sting was. And I can understand that sting.

MARTIN: Well, Luke, but would you address John McWhorter's point, which is that his argument is that if youre saying that, you know, racism can only be expressed from the position of greater power, John McWhorter makes the point that Kanye West had a lot of power in that situation. He had the assumed moral authority because hes African-American. He had the mic because he's a famous celebrity and had the country's attention at that pivotal moment. So, in fact he was being a bully. What do you say to that?

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, he obviously has some remorse and I'm not going to judge his apologies, but the first apology that he made I have a hard time believing that George Bush cares about anyone, so sidebar black people also. That was his first apology on "Nightline." I liked that one better. I think that if you look at what actually happened in New Orleans and the effect of that hurricane, the one thing that he did have to say, the president, which was when he talked to Trent Lott, he said well, some day we'll be sitting on your porch sipping lemonade after it's been rebuilt. That's what he really cared about and I think that Kanye West doesn't have a position of power because he's a rapper bigger than the leader of the free world, president of the United States.

In this country, if you talk about racism it flows from power to non-power. Now white people, white households in this country have 10 times the wealth of black households. Why? There was racism for 200 years then another 80 years of Jim Crow laws, and finally within the last generation, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, etcetera, has loosened those bonds of oppression. You can't have a black person being racist towards a white person. They can be bigoted - that's not - no doubt about it, but they can't be racist. Racism can only flow from power to non-power. And so, therefore, Kanye West could not have been a racist to the president of the United States - just could not have been.

MARTIN: Well, let's take the sort of the broader question; do you think that now that we do have an African-American who is the leader of the free world, the commander-in-chief, does that change the use of that term?

Mr. VISCONTI: I don't think so. Look at how the Tea Party aggregated power. The Koch brothers and others, they had a concentrated campaign: take our country back. From whom exactly? Oh, yeah, the black president.

And then the other things you saw over the summer, it seems to have gone away this fall, but the president dressed as some sort of cannibal, Hollywood cannibal, the president in all sorts of racially-charged scenes and pictures, the president in white face, all of those things, that's all about racism. It's about aggregating power amongst the disaffected and economically hurt white lower middle class, that's what this was about.

So no, I don't think it changes anything to have a black president. It, you know, if anything it highlights it.

MARTIN: Do you think that we use the term too freely? I had, one writer told me he was - a conservative writer told me that racism is the neutron bomb of American politics, that you throw that charge out there and it has a devastating, you know, effect. Do you think that we use the term too freely and do you think it does still have that force?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think it has force but apparently not enough. We imprison as a country almost eight times the global average per thousand and 55 percent of those prisoners are black and Latino. So, and if you look at the subprime crisis, the damage done was proportionally much higher amongst black and Latino households and women-headed households. So, you know, bottom line, the term has power but boy, not enough.

MARTIN: But your argument is that we don't really, we may care about the word but we don't care enough about the effects of racism, we really dont in your opinion.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, enough to wallpaper over it. Yeah, I think that's about it.

MARTIN: And John McWhorter, what do you think?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, I think two things pretty briefly. On the Tea Party, there's a whole conversation to be had about the extent to which theyre motivated by racism or the color of the president. But it comes down to this: Imagine a historical experiment where this happens to be a highly ethnically homogenous country like say, Estonia, same sorts of things that have gone on in terms of philosophy of government. But we're like Estonia; there doesn't happen to be a black-white opposition, or even imagine that the president had become a non-scandaled John Edwards. All of this is hypothetical. Would there be a Tea Party right now?

And I think most people would be very hard put to say that if the president were not black or that if all the people in this country were of the same color there would not be right now an angry populist movement. It's too simplistic to look at the Tea Partiers and their impoliteness and because naturally some of them are going to get impolite about race because there will always be such people, to think that the reason for it is because the president is brown.

But more important is this: We can oversimplify the term racism but we can also oversimplify the term power. The word power can be used as kind of a conversational battering ram. There are many kinds of power. And if you think about autumn of 2005, who had more power in the moral sense, a 50-something notoriously inarticulate president or was it the 20-something charismatic young rapper, and not just a rapper but a black rapper, not just a black rapper but what's known as a conscious black rapper who quote/unquote has some things to say, and was rapping about things other than the usual mean things that we've talked too much about?

That person at that time had massive moral authority in his public statements about racism. He had the power and I think that that has to color, so to speak, our view of him taking a mic and indeed calling George Bush a racist. He had the power, he used it, and at this point if we can say that he's grown a little bit, its in that five years later he watches himself using that power and has a certain ambivalence, and has certain questions about what he did. What Kanye West did was and I understand Mr. Visconti's problems with George Bush, I had most of them myself - but what Kanye West did given his power, was very, very mean.

MARTIN: John McWhorter is a linguist. He is author of the book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America. He's a contributing editor for the publication from the Manhattan Institute called City Journal. He joined us from his home office.

Luke Visconti is the columnist behind "Ask the White Guy" from DiversityInc.com. He joined us from WBGO in Newark.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. VISCONTI: Thanks, Michel.

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