Racial Discourse, Hate Speech, and Political Correctness

By Greene, Linda S. | National Forum, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Racial Discourse, Hate Speech, and Political Correctness


Greene, Linda S., National Forum


The phenomenon of political correctness has truly captured our imaginations and pervasively insinuated itself into our discourse on human relations. How humorous it is that a title called Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by Gamer, has been on the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list for thirty-two weeks at last count. The phrase "political correctness" appears frequently in print, too.

When men open doors for women, they often say with a smile, "I know this is not politically correct but...." The request by groups that the literary canon be expanded to include the works of people of color and women has been denominated an example of political correctness. Efforts to diversify faculty also meet the political correctness charge, and concerns about pornography, hate speech, and sexual harassment are tarred by the same politically correct brush. The now broad usage of the phrase makes succinct characterization problematic, but in general the most serious charge of political correctness is an accusation that one espouses a cramped, narrow orthodoxy, or worse, censorship of free expression. At the extremes, critics of "political correctness" include charges of authoritarianism.

Our discourse on hate speech has been fundamentally altered by the charge of political correctness; it has changed the discussion from one that focuses on purveyors of hate to one that focuses on objectors to hate. In this context, the charge of political correctness is a clever rhetorical phrase that has turned a debate about racism and its lingering manifestation into a debate about censorship.

During the 1960s civil rights movement, we observed film footage that graphically portrayed the violence associated with racist epithets. This footage helped us to understand the relationship between hate speech and the question of equality both emotionally and intellectually. We were officially embarrassed and ashamed of these frank demonstrations of hate. And we seemed to understand that words as well as actions played a key role in a regime of separation and subordination. We also knew that certain words were audible reminders of an ideology of racial supremacy and inferiority, and that such language signaled a rejection of the ideal of equality we hoped to belatedly embrace.

For a moment it seemed that we were clear about racist hate speech. We concluded that it was the expression of the ideology of racial inferiority which had been central to our constitutional and popular culture. Pursuant to new civil rights statutes, our judges ruled that racially hostile environments violated the law. Official rules as well as customs eradicated the use of racial epithets from public life and required the punishment of public figures if they repeated the* private verbal indiscretions. There was no public argument, on any ground, that racist speech was harmless or useful. Or perhaps there was no one willing to make that case.

The New Public Argument

Now however, we do have a public argument about the permissibility of racist speech. The pre-1965 public argument was that racist speech conveyed truthful and appropriate messages about the worth of those maligned. The old public argument was fairly similar to the private argument. But the new public argument eschews the endorsement of specific language and the endorsement of racial inequality. The new public argument is that any curtailment or punishment of racist speech not only would violate First Amendment principles but also would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The new public argument is much more attractive than the old ones. In the first place, the new argument appropriates a major premise difficult to refute--that liberty and freedom of speech are fundamental. In addition, the new public argument avoids the messy and embarrassing discussion of the particular words that users of racist speech hurl to remind certain people that they are not equal and that they are still at risk. …

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