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Going ghetto

I’VE GONE ghetto.

Don’t be alarmed. This isn’t news. Actually I haven’t gone ghetto; I’ve just realized that I’ve been ghetto all along. I’ve always figured -- wrongly -- that certain key lines on my resume at a certain point in my life would dispel ghetto for good, such as a couple of degrees, a certain facility with words and language and an inordinate fondness for Greek mythology.

I’ve since realized that’s but a quaint expectation cultivated in the 1960s -- one of many -- that’s been moldering under glass ever since; visible, venerated on occasion, but not always usable in the real world. Kind of like the Constitution.

Last week, conservative radio talk-show host Neal Boortz made it clear for me. After the instantly infamous encounter last month between Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a black from Georgia who was first elected to Congress in 1992, and the Capitol police, Boortz called her “ghetto trash” and said she looked like a “ghetto slut.” What Boortz seemed to be saying was that, underneath their credentials, black people remain primitive and irrational. And black women with big hair are proof of it.

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Many critics of the Georgia congresswoman decried her behavior -- allegedly whacking a police officer with a cellphone after he attempted to stop her at an entrance to the Capitol -- as inappropriate, possibly criminal. Boortz joined that chorus. What really set him off, however, and tapped into a vitriol that runs much deeper than his opinion of one controversial act, was McKinney’s physical appearance. For Boortz, the most compelling evidence of McKinney’s moral and professional failure was not her scuffle with the law but her new, quasi-Afro hairdo, as well as a longtime penchant for colorful clothes and shoes.

His tirade against her overall look gave new credence to the old stereotype of a wench -- a term used in the slave era that mythologized black women as ungroomed, uncouth and hypersexual, with none of the poise and refinement of their mythologized white Southern counterparts. A modern version of a wench is that street-bred, provocatively clad “‘ho” of hip-hop videos, given not only to outrageous hair and clothes but also to back talk and plenty of attitude. (That McKinney is dark skinned and more “primitive” looking than, say, Beyonce, seals the deal.)

Certainly McKinney has been unpredictable and outspoken -- that is, guilty of back talk -- throughout her career. A vocal critic of the Bush administration, she suggested three years ago that the administration had prior knowledge of 9/11, a suggestion that cost her her seat in 2002. She won it back in 2004 but didn’t exactly tone down her approach. And then she had the audacity to switch from cornrow braids -- a look Boortz sanctioned as “classy” -- to a wild and curly blowout. Some people just don’t know their place.

None of this should matter, of course. Boortz is a relatively minor media figure who, thanks to the McKinney flap, got his 15 minutes. It’s tempting to believe this is an isolated incident, and Boortz even wound up apologizing for his misstep, as McKinney did for hers.

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But isolated is just what this isn’t. That any journalist feels free to insult a member of Congress with a blatantly racist and sexist slur on the public airwaves means that we’re all in big trouble. Nor is it likely that Boortz would have said what he said if he didn’t feel there was a critical mass of people prepared to agree with him. The context facilitated the comment.

I know antipathy toward strong-willed women is neither new nor uncommon. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Teresa Heinz Kerry and scores of others have been condemned for transgressions far more subtle than slapping a cop. (As Barbara Bush once said of Geraldine Ferraro: “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”)

But such a label is almost a badge of honor for a woman now, confirmation that she has followed her conscience or struck a nerve. Being called “ghetto trash” and a “ghetto slut” is a much broader condemnation -- and not of an action but of a people. Folks like Boortz know that in today’s climate they can get away with racist remarks, and that an apology will be accepted and everyone will go home until the next eruption. This allows racism to surface only episodically, which is the preferred dynamic, instead of daily.

Be warned: The next episode may be mine. After a few years of short, controlled hair ranging from painted-on to ear length, I’ve let mine grow. It’s now on a serious offensive, approaching Cynthia McKinney territory. I’m feeling belligerent already.

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As a good friend of mine says, might as well go with the ‘fro.


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