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Tiptoeing Around This City of Euphemisms

A few months after the ashes of the Los Angeles riots cooled, in September 1992, I ventured down Broadway, south of Florence, to do a story about a commercial district that was neglected as recovery efforts focused elsewhere. A young African American woman seemed confused when I asked her about the, er, trouble that spring.

“The what?”

“The, um, rebellion,” I said, trying not to offend. “The uprising.”

“You mean the riot?” she replied, matter-of-fact as can be.

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Her candor was refreshing--plain talk removed from the rhetoric of the day. A few months later, discussion over what to call you-know-what moved Newsweek’s Joe Klein to dub Los Angeles the “City of Euphemisms.” Councilman Mike Woo, then the front-runner in the mayor’s race, memorably told Klein how he referred to those rage-filled days: “The uprising, in African American neighborhoods--and the riot in other parts of the city.” Woo’s candor was less refreshing.

Perhaps it required an outsider--Klein is a New Yorker--to offer an independent diagnosis of what he called “the nation’s most perplexing city.” My reaction was apropos. I wanted to shake Klein’s hand, but I also wanted to say, “ You try living in L.A. without a few euphemisms.”

New Yorkers are famous for being rude. Then again, we get accused of being phony.

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Which brings us to the O.J. Simpson case and the euphemism of the moment--"the N-word,” the polite synonym for the six-letter racial slur for a black person. The hatred and ugliness this term connotes is one reason decent folks prefer to talk around it, perhaps more so than any other word. Now, the N-word may be used in an appropriate context--in a courtroom, in certain academic or journalistic situations, or even for artistic effect. But in keeping with the spirit of our fair city, allow me to stick with the N-word.

If you believe the rhetoric of Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden, then O.J. Simpson will surely be acquitted--and all because of the power of the word.

Think back to Friday the 13th and the emotional pretrial confrontation between two African American attorneys, Darden and defense counsel Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. At issue was whether the court would allow disputed testimony that police Detective Mark Fuhrman, portrayed by the defense team as a racist who may have planted the bloody glove to implicate Simpson, used the N-word and made other racially inflammatory statements in the mid-1980s.

“It is the dirtiest, filthiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Darden declared. “It’ll upset the black jurors. It’ll issue a test, and the test will be: ‘Whose side are you on, the side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen or are you on the side of the black defendant and his very prominent and capable black lawyer? . . . Either you’re with the man, or you’re with the brothers. . . . It’s white versus black, African American versus Caucasian, us versus them, us versus the system. It’s not a simple issue of guilt or innocence, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It becomes an issue of color. Who’s the blackest man up here? Who are the real brothers?”

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Cochran rightly pointed out that Darden’s passionate, cynical argument demeaned the characters of the black jurors. “African Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives,” Cochran said. “But yet they still believe in this country. . . . To say they can’t be fair is absolutely outrageous.”

And thus the Simpson team, ever disingenuous in denying the racial aspects of its strategy, was handed the moral high ground for a day. When the prosecution tried a racial ploy, it backfired. Judge Lance Ito ruled for the defense, allowing Fuhrman to be questioned about his alleged statements. Only in the City of Euphemisms would the D.A.'s office become so hung up on a word.

The hometown press often reflects local sensitivities. It so happened that the big newspapers in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Denver, Detroit, Boston, Atlanta and Miami all matter-of-factly spelled out the N-word in their accounts of the Darden-Cochran debate. Here in the city sensitized by the Rodney King beating and the “civil unrest” it inspired, both this newspaper and the Daily News opted for softer synonyms. Etiquette can be a regional matter.

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Christopher Darden, it was good to see, was less emotional and more effective in Tuesday’s opening argument, describing the defendant as a man obsessed. He didn’t sound like an attorney who thinks he’s fighting a losing battle. So maybe Darden agrees with Cochran after all. Maybe he believes this jury can be fair.

Then again, if prosecutors fail, the N-word will serve as their alibi, their scapegoat, their race card. Only in the City of Euphemisms.


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