Action Speaks Louder Than ‘That Word’

Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based writer

The N-word is something that most civilized people claim they never use, so no one was more horrified than Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante when it slipped from his lips. While he was addressing a group of black unionists in Emeryville. Where he’d been invited to speak as an honored guest during a Black History Month celebration.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

To his credit, Bustamante owned up to his mistake immediately. He had been speaking about the history of blacks in America’s trade union movement and had referred to us as Negroes several times, in a historically consistent reference to what we then called ourselves. After he concluded his prepared speech and after the applause died down (many people said they didn’t hear him use the word, although a handful did and walked out in protest), he made a startling announcement.

“I can’t leave the podium because I don’t know if you heard what I think I heard, but if you did, that is not me, that’s not how I was raised and that’s not how I teach my children,” the mortified politician told his audience.


And by all accounts, the slip is completely atypical of Bustamante’s words and actions. His use of it was the political equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, wherein victims of the disease blurt out words and phrases in staccato bursts that startle them as much as the people around them.

Bustamante has worked hard for the past two years to coax people to begin meaningful discussions about race, race relations and how they affect California’s future. He is the chair of the One California Commission, which crusades for racial harmony in California’s head-spinningly diverse populations. And he has taken television executives to task for programming and hierarchy that fail to reflect the market at whom their product is aimed. When he gave his inaugural speech as lieutenant governor, he acknowledged African American support as having been significant to his victory.

So given his record, many people are content to let Bustamante apologize and move on.

Apology accepted. But I think there’s more to be done here. The sincerest form of apology would be for Bustamante to continue his work to bridge the African American and Latino communities in the state and to encourage other Latino politicians to do the same. A good start would be the honest acknowledgment that there is color prejudice in many Latino households, the unfortunate residue of an oppressive colonial past that used African-descended people even as it refused to recognize our contributions to building those modern civilizations.

African ethnicity is what some scholars call the “third root” in mestizo societies. With the Indian and the European, the third root melds in Central and South American populations to create beautiful people and cultures that are disparate but also alike in many important ways. It is also the heritage about which many Latino communities are the most conflicted, to the point that brown people with features that most would label Negroid shudder and protest, “Oh no, just Spanish and Indian blood here.”

The refusal to acknowledge the obvious seems to many black Americans a less-than-subtle reminder that what we are is considered tainted by people who might otherwise acknowledge us as diaspora cousins. That rejection breeds counter-rejection from us, and the downward spiral continues. It’s a particularly pernicious progression as demographics continue to shift in the state and blacks feel that Latinos are moving into the mainstream at our expense.

Bustamante has a chance to arrest the spin, if he is brave enough. He could gather his fellow Latino movers and shakers and persuade them to acknowledge that race is as much of a problem within their own communities as outside. An honest recognition of that, as they move to work with their African American counterparts, would allow the healing to begin.