From Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant, to Michael Richard's racist tirade, to the anti-gay slurs voiced by Grey's Anatomy star, Isaiah Washington, the question on my mind has been, "Where did all of that hatred come from, and what, if anything, does it say about the state of America's melting pot?"
It is against this backdrop that Brazoria, Texas mayor, Ken Corley, who is 62 and white, recently sought to outlaw use of the "N-word" in his town of 2800 (about 10 percent of whom are black). Under the proposed law, users of the N-word would be fined $500.
Eventually, the mayor announced he was dropping the proposal altogether — which was a very sound decision from a legal perspective. As ugly as the N-word is, the ordinance would have been in direct conflict with First Amendment protections of free speech, and a competent court would certainly have thrown it out.
Beyond that, as a practical matter, there are limits to what the law can do. Many of us may consider it immoral to use the N-word, but there is truth to the adage that you can't legislate morality. As Martin Luther King said, "We need religion and education to change attitudes and to change the hearts of men."
Reverend King might have also added that market forces can impact civility as well. It isn't a coincidence that Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, and Isaiah Washington have all been contrite in the wake of their respective scandals. Their careers and pocketbooks were placed in direct jeopardy as a result of their boorish behavior, and they knew it.
With all of that in mind, the fact that the N-word law was being considered at all raises the issue of why the mayor would waste time and governmental resources backing a proposal that was so obviously destined to fail.
"This is a melting pot-this country is, OK?" Corley explained to WOAI San Antonio News. "There is no room for racial slurs whatever."
So, why single out the N-word? Is it a particular problem in Brazoria?
"It's not a particular problem in Brazoria," Corley admitted, to the Houston Chronicle — at least not the way it was when he was growing up in the town, he told United Press International. But "when you're in town and riding around, and somebody pulls up next to you, and they have their radio on, and they have some gangsta rap. I don't want my children or my grandchildren — I don't want anybody in this town — to be subjected to that language." Corley also complained that the N-word was often used by "young people" greeting one another.
But by the mayor's own admission, the proposed law was largely aimed at affecting the behavior of black people — and a form of music primarily generated by young black people.
Of course, it is impossible for us to know whether Mayor Corley's motives derived, in some sense, from what those of us in legal circles refer to as "racial animus." But it might make a certain amount of sense, given the city's history. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of evacuees, a great many of whom were black, sought immediate refuge in southern towns like Brazoria. According to Demographia.com, Brazoria County (which contains the city of Brazoria) received 5,636 evacuees as a direct result of Katrina.
Moreover, a Newsweek report suggests that the goodwill initially shown by neighboring towns like Brazoria has begun to erode in recent months. "You'll hear little snide remarks," says Angelo Edwards, vice chair of ACORN Katrina Survivors Association. "People will say, 'The reason you can't get a job is because you don't talk right'." More specifically, according to Edwards, there is a hip-hop culture clash between kids who feel the need to "represent" their music style. "Now you've got two sticks of dynamite rubbing against each other," says Edwards.
Singer, Songwriter, and Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman puts it another way: "The thugs and the crackheads have decided they like Houston and want to stay ... and they got their hustle on, and we need to put ours on fast." In the 70s, Friedman led a band called the "Texas Jewboys" in which members gave each other nicknames like "Little Jewford," and "Big Nig."
But any existing racial tensions in Brazoria didn't necessarily begin with Hurricane Katrina. Between 1849 and 1859 plantation life in Brazoria County flourished, and the county became the wealthiest in Texas, largely due to the efforts of its slaves. At the dawn of the Civil War, residents of Brazoria County cast more than 99 percent of their votes in favor of secession. And in subsequent years, organizations like Ku Klux Klan, San Bernard Rifles, and Prairie Rangers attempted to maintain the supremacy of whites in the county. Statewide, racial segregation was an issue throughout the 1950s and 60s; equal voting rights continued to be a problem as well.
On a more positive note, the Houston Chronicle reports that most of the 200 Brazoria residents who gathered in the middle of Main Street to debate the proposed N-word law broke into applause upon learning that the mayor had withdrawn it. And regardless of what anybody thought about the law or the mayor's motives for backing it, it certainly did generate an important, and exceptionally civil, discussion. Almost all the speakers at the meeting said they condemned the use of racial epithets, and most also agreed that the proposed ordinance would cause more problems than it would cure. "I'm embarrassed for my little town," added Bill Lott, who is white. "We need to unite, not divide."
I say, chalk one up for Brazoria's melting pot!
1) Mel Gibson
4) Brazoria , TX mayor, Ken Corley, who is 62 and white, recently sought to outlaw use of the "N-word" in his town of 2800 (about 10 percent of whom are black). Under the proposed law, users of the N-word would be fined $500.
5a) MLK quote
6) "This is a melting pot — this country is, OK?" Corley explained to the WOAI San Antonio News. "There is no room for racial slurs whatever." But "when you're in town and riding around, and somebody pulls up next to you, and they have their radio on, and they have some gangsta rap. I don't want my children or my grandchildren — I don't want anybody in this town — to be subjected to that language."
11) Kinky Friedman-Thugs and crackheads
See Lexis or Westlaw: Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Sept. 13, 2006; Section B; Lawmaker Criticizes Kinky for Comments on Evacuees; By John Moritz
12) Kinky Friedman-led the band "Jewboys"
See Lexis or Westlaw: Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Sept. 22, 2006; Section B; Friedman is a Comic, Not a Racist; By Bob Ray Sanders
15) TX voting rights
16) Houston Chronicle reports that 200 ... Bill Lott quote
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.