A GOP ‘Bigot Eruption’?

U.S. Representative Geoff Davis has started a huge blogospheric outcry for allegedly using a racial slur directed at Barack Obama. Oliver Willis, among others, has described this as a “bigot eruption”. Here’s the offending remark:

Congressman Geoff Davis, took the criticisms of Mr. Obama a few steps further, likening the change slogan to the pitch of a “snake oil salesman.” He then relayed to the audience that he had taken party in a “highly classified, national security simulation” with Obama.

“I’m going to tell you something: That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button,” Mr. Davis said. “He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country.”

The offending phrase here is the use of the term “that boy”, because in the South the word “boy” was often employed in the past as a degrading form of address for African-Americans.

That being said, I think that the claim here is a bit overblown. The context of the remarks that Davis made, while not particularly dignified, weren’t racially directed. Indeed, the primary complaint that Rep. Davis made about Obama was his naivete–race wasn’t mentioned at all. Additionally, as far as I can tell from a quick Google search of Rep. Geoff Davis, he doesn’t appear to have been associated with any type of derogatory racial remarks in the past.

So, given the context of both Rep. Davis’s remarks and his history, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Rep. Davis intended to make any kind of racially insensitive or racially derogatory remarks regarding Senator Obama. That said, being a Republican politician from Kentucky, he should probably know to watch his mouth a little better than that, because given the history of the region, it’s pretty easy to take offense at what he said.

Context is everything, people. You can’t judge a person or their meaning by one sentence or paragraph or word. You have to consider the context in which a particular statement is made, and the overall history and character of the person uttering it.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Race and Politics, , , , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Rich Gardner says:

    People that want to be offended will be offended.

    Right-speak does not exist.

  2. rodney dill says:

    I don’t think you can get a free pass for calling a grown black man a “boy” anymore. If Davis really lacks the astuteness to be at least that conscious of racial issues he shouldn’t be in office.

  3. MichaelB says:

    For us foreigners, can we please have a list of words that are offensive? It seems to change on a regular basis, and often include words that are not obviously offensive. Indeed, it seems to often include words that are obviously not offensive to those of us not experienced in American racial politics.

    If I were more cynical, I’d say it was manufactured outrage…

  4. Bithead says:

    No question that the guy is a bit of a jerk, but he’s no racist, whatever the racial ambulance chasers have to say about it. And in reality that’s what’s going on here… It’s not racism, but what the responses are, though, is opportunism.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Once again, this is radicalism. Their consciousnesses have been raised with respect to race, they are radicalized with respect to race, everything is now about race, and it’s practically impossible to utter a declarative sentence that isn’t about race.

    I don’t care what Geoff Davis (think about the name for a moment) says. But those who’ve been radicalized do.

  6. Jim Henley says:

    Dave, I like you, but you’re completely and utterly wrong here. Infuriatingly so. HE CALLED A BLACK MAN “BOY!” Is there such a thing as “political correctness” and racial opportunism? Sure. Jesse Jackson’s claim that if you called him a “leftist” you meant [N-word] qualifies. But when you CALL A BLACK MAN A “BOY” you are perpetuating a racist tradition.

    Alex: The naivete is the notion that if Davis was “really” talking about something ostensibly non-racial then there was clearly no racial subtext to CALLING A BLACK MAN “BOY” in the course of doing so.

    This is not using a perfectly good word like “niggardly” in its proper context and having someone leap to take offense. This is a Southern politician using what is probably the second-oldest and nastiest slur available when referring to a black man in public, and people noticing.

  7. Michael says:

    Am I the only one who noticed the claim that there was a classified, national security simulation about what Barack Obama would do as President, that says he couldn’t handle the situation? What the hell kind of simulation is that?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Jim:

    Could be. My point is that I don’t care what Davis says although I think his diction was dopey. I’m a lot more concerned with what he thinks and what he does. I think that others, including African Americans, should be, too.

    Does his speech reflect what he thinks and does or is this cigar just a cigar? That’s the case I’d like to see.

  9. James Joyner says:

    The fact that he shares a name, although not the spelling, with the former president of the Confederacy probably doesn’t help things.

    I don’t know Davis or his background. One plausible explanation for the use of “boy,” though, is as a not-so-subtle dig at Obama’s youth and inexperience. As in, “a boy trying to do a man’s job.” That would certainly make more sense in this context than a racial slur.

    I agree with Rodney, though, that Davis ought to have known better.

  10. rodney dill says:

    Somewhat to Michael’s point, its a shame that Davis used a poor choice in words. This tends to detract from the claim that Obama might handle a nuclear situation poorly.

    Its a far more important issue to at least some voters as to whether Davis’ claim is a potential issue or just politically motivated.

    Davis revealing to the public even this much about a supposedly ‘highly classified simulation’ should raise some red flags of its own.

  11. Jim Henley says:

    James, an easy question for you: How did “boy” become a racial epithet in the first place? What did it signify?

    K, that looks like two questions, I’ll grant you, but it’s really one.

  12. Pug says:

    For us foreigners, can we please have a list of words that are offensive?

    This is not “manufactured” outrage. Black men, especially in the American South, were addressed as “boy” by whites during the many years of oppression of blacks and everyone in America knows you don’t call a black man “boy”.

    This was a stupid comment and the fool who made the remark knew exactly what he was saying. Most Americans, including those who bitterly oppose Barack Obama, won’t put up with this stuff.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Unlike some other words which I won’t mention here “boy”, generally, is benign and continues in common parlance. It can be used with reference to the young, colloquially (“good old boy”), or in the sense of camaraderie, among others. The words I won’t mention are impossible to use in a non-offensive sense. Not so “boy”. That means that you can’t infer intent from the use of the word per se.

    That’s why I see this as an example of the consciousness-raising/radicalization process I mentioned above. Intent is inferred from context because one’s consciousness has been raised. I don’t see any way to reconcile the idea of words which are offensive only in specific contexts and the identification of which words and what contexts delegated to some authority, presumably the offended, with liberal principles.

    Note that I’m not defending Mr. Davis and, indeed, don’t care about him or what he says one way or another.

  14. BJ says:

    wow! speaking of naivete, its abundantly evident that many of you are not qualified to speak on this matter. while i agree that invoking race to deflect from the real issue is an unfortunate occurrence. but this clearly is not what’s taking place here. as the gentleman so aptly stated previously, a black man being called a boy taps into the same rage that bubbles to the surface when the pejorative nigger is spewed. black men have long been referred to as boys no matter their age, intelligence or success. it was a means in which to demean, belittle and relegate to subhuman status. how ironic that another b word “bitter” receives more attention than a black man -he’s white as well but apparently the black in him trumps that fact- being called a boy. not to mention a black man running for president. i suppose those old men at my childhood barber shop were right all along. “as a black man, no matter how successful you are, no matter how much money you make you are still a nigger! thats not playing the race card thats race reality. unfortunately, i lived it and as far as i can tell none of you have.

  15. I hate PC but . . . says:

    I’m leaning to McCain and hate PC. And I don’t necessarily think this needs to be an issue here. But for anyone wavering in their minds about what was really said here, I can say that from my own background that for a white Southerner over 40 to say what he did, there is no question — and I mean none nada zippo no-chance-in-hell — that he meant anything other than “That nigger.” You can debate all you want about whether it matters that he said that. But there is no question that this is exactly what he was thinking. To his credit, Davis’ apology didn’t try to say otherwise, he just apologized in a way that you could tell he knew there is no other explanation.

  16. William d'Inger says:

    WINNERS —

    Davis: He gets to pander to his base.

    Obama: He gets to play the race card, and “boy” is the king of spades in that deck.

    Wall Street: Big box stores in blue states make record profits replacing worn out CAPS LOCK keys to stressed out liberals.

    China: The CAPS LOCK key factories enjoy full employment.

    Liberals: They get their daily exercise. Knee jerking is an aerobic sport with those people.

    Conservatives: They get to sit by in bemused observation of liberals having coronaries.

    LOSER —

    Hillary: It’s not about her.

  17. Hal says:

    I don’t see any way to reconcile the idea of words which are offensive only in specific contexts and the identification of which words and what contexts delegated to some authority, presumably the offended, with liberal principles.

    Gee Dave, the word “Bitch” means “female dog”, too. Of course it’s all about context. What you’re trying to argue is that the meaning of Davis’ remark is purely dependent on the context of the listener – you’re argument about “consciousness raising” regarding race is pretty much completely based on this premise. Your argument is simply that these people are analogous to allergies in that they are hyper sensitive to race – as people with bad allergies are hyper sensitive to certain irritants that the rest of use are oblivious to.

    It’s a cute argument, but it’s really pretty lame. It’s really nothing more than a simple dressing up of the age old arguments which have been made defending racism.

    There really is zero reason to call a 40 year old a “boy”. Especially a Senator. There is no camaraderie between Davis and Obama, so your throwing that example out there is simply a red herring. Barak isn’t young, so your use of that word as an example of how it’s benign is also a red herring.

    Just because a word has benign uses – say, like “bitch” – doesn’t mean that in the context it’s used changes that meaning from a benign interpretation to a slur. Calling a woman a “bitch” invokes meaning that is indeed dependent on the context, but it’s not dependent on the context of the listener – it’s all entirely in the context in which the user of the word meant it.

    Likewise, Davis’ use of “boy” has *no* context which implies a benign meaning. Just because there are contexts which have benign meaning do not change the very real fact that there are contexts where the use of the word “boy” has all the connotations of racial slurs of much stronger words.

    Your logic is quite simply broken, Dave.

  18. sam says:

    Obama: He gets to play the race card, and “boy” is the king of spades in that deck.

    Say what?

  19. William d'Inger says:

    Say what?

    The strongest suit in a deck of cards is spades (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs). The second highest card in a suit is the king (ace, king, queen, jack …). When one is playing race cards, the highest card in the strongest suit is the ace of spades (represented by the N-word). In that context, the word “boy” is next in importance. At least, that’s what I meant it to mean. In plain English, I think Davis used it as a racial slur.

  20. Bithead says:

    Say what?

    Ok…

    What?

  21. Wayne says:

    “There really is zero reason to call a 40 year old a “boy”.”

    I get call boy by my elders quite often especially when I go back home and I’m white. Claiming there is no camaraderie between Senators is asinine even if they are from opposite side of the isle. That goes for anyone in congress but I admit less so between the House and the Senate than between those in the same legislative branch. Likewise saying use of “boy” has *no* context is false. The context was about the judgments and experiences of Obama.

    Yes the word boy has been used in a negative ways against men black or white but it has also been used in positive ways as well. It is a shame that whenever a Republican use a term that could be positive or negative, it automatically assume to be negative by the left while Democrats get a past. There is nothing else in Davis’s statement that hinted at racism unlike some statements made by Obama.

  22. anjin-san says:

    I can’t think of a context for calling a black male “boy” without offending him. Those of us who actually know some black folks well enough to spend time in their homes know that young black male children are generally referred to as “little man” because the use of “boy” is offensive, even if you are directing it as a child who is, in fact, a boy.

  23. Hal says:

    I get call boy by my elders quite often especially when I go back home and I’m white

    In what way is Davis the “elder” of Obama. The difference between them is three years. If you think it’s appropriate or common to call someone “boy” who is three years younger than you, without intending it to be a slur (not necessarily racial), then you are straining credulity and providing semantic parsing that would put Bill Clinton to shame.

    The context was about the judgments and experiences of Obama.

    Um, so you’re admitting, right off the bat, that it wasn’t a chummy act of camaraderie, aren’t you. It’s a slur and meant to put him down. Whether it’s a racial slur is up for grabs, but you’ve basically stated that you agree that it’s a slur. So can we just drop the pretense that it wasn’t a slur and argue about the racially charged meaning?

    it has also been used in positive ways as well.

    This argument of yours is simply absurd. Who cares what the positive ways are when even you agree that it wasn’t meant in a positive light. Geebus, do you actually think this is an actual argument? It’s simply a smoke screen meant to distract.

    There is nothing else in Davis’s statement that hinted at racism unlike some statements made by Obama.

    Ah, yes. You’re so confident about Obama’s racism and racist remarks, but Davis’ remarks are pure as the driven snow.

    I think the more terrifying thing is that this actually passes for logic in your world, Wayne.

  24. BJ says:

    william, if we are to believe your theory, Obama wanted Davis, and anyone else for that matter to refer to him as a boy solely to play the race card. how ignorant a statement and belief on your part. i’m quite confident Obama doesn’t contemplate the myriad ways he can induce white people into tossing racial slurs his way…..winners-“how bemused conservatives will be while observing liberals have coronaries”. Obama states accurately I might add, that folks are bitter and the whole nation is in a tizzy. yet he and black folks alike must immediately cure themselves of the sting felt from davis’ comments and erase from their memory a history of disparaging remarks. remarks to the black man and woman that are as american as apple pie….let me ask you something william. if i place my foot on your throat, how absurd is it for me to dictate to you, how to react to me having my foot on your throat? in no way am i suggesting that that foot applies as much pressure as it once did. but the legacy of that footprint continues to shape the black mans existence in america.

  25. davod says:

    “Likewise, Davis’ use of “boy” has *no* context which implies a benign meaning”

    How silly. Your argument presupposes ignorance of the English language.

    This is exactly the reason niggardly took on such importance in DC. Ignorant people presumed someone was being racist.

    Furthermore. I would suggest the movers of this attack on Davis were the White brains trust at the Obama campaign.

  26. sam says:

    Say what?

    Ok…

    What?

    the king of spades — evidently the joke was too subtle.

  27. Hal says:

    How silly. Your argument presupposes ignorance of the English language

    How silly. Your argument presupposes ignorance of history. Which, apparently, in your case is a pretty darn good bet.

  28. Laura says:

    “Boy” used by a Southern male when talking about a black 48-year old man IS a racist statement. There is no question…it is a code and it is a fact. There is no excuse…only someone NOT black or from the South would not “get it.”

  29. rodney dill says:

    BJ I think you may have overreacted with your ‘speaking of naivete, its abundantly evident that many of you are not qualified to speak on this matter.’ comment. I checked the links above your comment and by my interpretation, 3 commentors think the use of ‘boy’ didn’t seem to denote anything too bad. 4 commentors seem to indicate it the use of ‘boy’ is not acceptable. 2 commentors ignore the race issue or the use of ‘boy’ issue. Where does many apply? (my own emphasis added)

  30. William d'Inger says:

    if we are to believe your theory, Obama wanted Davis, and anyone else for that matter to refer to him as a boy solely to play the race card.

    That’s a non sequitur. I noted Davis’ slur worked in Obama’s favor. There is no logical reason to twist that into saying I believe Obama wants people to make racial slurs. Unlike you, I do not presume to know what he wants. Do you think he approves of your calling me ignorant?

  31. Wayne says:

    HAL
    I am quite familiar with your logic from your previous post. Anything Dem is good. Anything Republican is bad. Nice logic. I stuck up for Obama when he said the “you people” comment. I basically said the statement is common and without further evidence it shouldn’t be considered as racist. Now we have further evidence.

    “If you think it’s appropriate or common to call someone “boy” who is three years younger than you, without intending it to be a slur”

    Your hate and/or inexperience blinds your thinking so bad that you can’t see how the term boy could be use without it being a slur. I heard people say about me “that boy is a damn good pool player”. Sorry I wasn’t insulted. I heard the term “boy” use in a negative context where the boy part wasn’t an insult. For example, “that boy a good shuffleboard player when he drinks but don’t let him drive”.

    Boy is use in many parts of the country as a sign of affection or just a common reference term sort of like the term “gals”. The actual argument is whether Davis meant it as a slur or was it a habit of his speech that he would have use regardless of the color of Obama’s skin. There is no supporting evidence that he meant the term “boy” as a slur. Then again the left tends not to need evidence and are willing to ignore facts just as long as it furthers their agenda.

  32. Hal says:

    Wayne, I’m roflmao. Quite entertaining.

  33. BJ says:

    this discussion would be comical if it wasn’t so seriuous! if i have one more sean hannity clone lecture me on what racism is or isn’t i’m going have to grab my hoe and make a beeline to the cotton field….quick question for all you davis defenders; how big do men get where you’re from?

  34. William d'Inger says:

    grab my hoe

    Pun intended?

  35. Wayne says:

    HAL
    Many crazies do that.

  36. Bob says:

    I have to say I now wish for those simpler times when one politician could call the other a “dumb ass”. Now we apparently need to know where they are both from, their socio-economic background, race, religon, family histories, etc so that we can look up on the Offensive Word chart to determine whether the PC police have deemed a phrase in or out of bounds…

  37. Michael says:

    Now we apparently need to know where they are both from, their socio-economic background, race, religon, family histories, etc so that we can look up on the Offensive Word chart to determine whether the PC police have deemed a phrase in or out of bounds…

    Or you could just conduct yourself and a respectful adult. I mean, I would think that’s the easier option.

  38. BJ says:

    william, thats correct, no pun intended. i don’t refer to my woman as a whore, ho, or a garden tool.

  39. davod says:

    BJ:

    We only have your word for it that there was no pun intended. Maybe we need to ask the Obamites among us.

  40. WildHundreds says:

    Context is everything, people. You can’t judge a person or their meaning by one sentence or paragraph or word. You have to consider the context in which a particular statement is made, and the overall history and character of the person uttering it.

    I wish this was said when Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s one sentence was shown endlessly on television!

  41. BJ says:

    okay davod and william, there was this one time;)

  42. Wayne says:

    Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s did much more than spout one sentence of hate. He continues to spout hate. If his statement of “God damn America” was all there was then there wouldn’t be much too it. However his extended videos and statements pretty much show that the “God damn America” statement exemplifies what he believes. It would be considered taken in context.

    Now if the congressmen often walk around referring to only blacks as boy or like to burn crosses on the weekend, then only a fool would say the congressman wasn’t racist but that is not the case.

  43. anjin-san says:

    There is no supporting evidence that he meant the term “boy” as a slur.

    Wayne,

    Do you know any black folks? Just curious…

  44. kgb999 says:

    The words I won’t mention are impossible to use in a non-offensive sense.

    Obviously you’ve never seen Comedy Central.

  45. Wayne says:

    Anjin
    Yes I do but that question is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with Davis intention on the use of that term. Are there blacks that get offended anytime someone uses the term boy? Yes. I know people who get offended anytime a Democrat opens their mouth and others who are offended anytime a Republican opens theirs. Someone being oversensitive and willing to be offended by a speaker regardless of the speaker’s intentions doesn’t make the speaker bad.

  46. anjin-san says:

    Sorry Wayne, but I just don’t think you have spent any time hanging out with the brothers… or you would know better.