About two weeks ago, Rick Perry was faltering in the polls because of a poorly named rock at the ranch he, and his father before him, leased out in Texas (also here). I started to reference this to underline how the other candidates took note of Perry’s mistakes in the more recent discussion on immigration. Instead, as I reviewed some of the articles, I realized that something was missing from the coverage, and that same something is significant to the discussion about illegal immigration.

It’s notable that the major newspapers who carried the story (Washington Post and New York Times) talked more about the impact that ‘the rock’ would have on Rick Perry, and very little about why calling a place “Niggerhead” is newsworthy in the first place. It is newsworthy, but not because it makes Rick Perry look like a backwoods clod. The bigger conversation happened away from the main pages, like at The Root, or even The not-a-news-source Daily Show (which the commentary at The Root references). The attitude that, ‘It’s just a word, get over it,’ appears in the comments section of the original breaking story in the Washington Post. There’s the rub – that a situation that employs the word ‘nigger’ should be insignificant, so long as it isn’t directed by one person to another.

Tied into the conversation is an oft expressed frustration with what it means to be “politically correct.” It may be that we all get frustrated when someone corrects us, but the idea of “political correctness” should remind us that words do have meaning and even underlying significance. Use of a word in a place-name may not constitute an insult hurled at an individual, but it does highlight the pervasiveness of the ideas the word represents in our society. Some words have a history of demeaning and pejorative use; repetition brings that history into contemporary society, even though some might regard the use innocuous. Indeed, the view that something like that can be innocuous is as problematic as anything. When a person points to words and concepts that rely on racist sentiments – i.e. are a step removed from racism yet ultimately dependent upon it – often such a person is decried as looking for racism where none exists. History (as a discipline) reminds us that society does not exist as a static point in time, but as a complex interweaving of ideas and events, while the effects of past events and ideas remain with a society through time. The benefits and burdens of those events remain as well.

One way in which the past stays with us is that we use it to build our definitions of ourselves and of others. We create narratives and discourse, our stories and ideas, such as those we use to understand the importance of the Founding Fathers in the formation of the nation. Honest Abe and The Cherry Tree are more pervasive ideas in our national mythos than are Jefferson’s slaves, let alone the stories of the slaves themselves. We, our newspapers, and our political leaders craft the discourse that fits our understanding of our nation. At one point, parts of the national discourse accepted the pervasive racism of slavery, and later that of segregation. Today we are forming a new discourse that, rather than striving to overcome the old disparities that persist in geographic and economic marginalization, are fomenting new ways of stratifying social groups. The next post will discuss how this happens, looking at the discourse of politicians regarding immigration.