The ‘Boy’ Thing

My colleague Alex Knapp has written about Rep. Geoff Davis’ reference to Barack Obama as “that boy” here and here. We’re in agreement that a) the word has racial context when used by a white man to describe a black man, b) Davis should have known better, and c) Davis’ particular use of the word could certainly have nonetheless been innocent.

There are two issues, however, on which I’m still not clear. I’ve spent most of my life in the South or around Southerners (such as in the military overseas). I’m 42. My only familiarity with the “boy” thing is from television and other vicarious exposure. So, while I know that “boy” was used as a demeaning reference to a black man, I don’t fully understand the nuances.

  • Wasn’t it traditionally used in the second person? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in the third person — “that boy” — in that manner.
  • My understanding is that “boy” was used as a means of condescension or establishing hierarchy rather than as a true ethnic slur. It was more akin to a 20-year-old white kid calling a 50-year-old black man by his first name in the days when one’s elders were “Mister So-and-So.” Or no?
FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Race and Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C Stanley says:

    I think you’re correct, but there’s only a slight difference between establishing hierarchy and using a racial slur when the comment is made by a white man in reference to a black man (given that in our history of race relations, all racial slurs were meant to establish that hierarchy.)

    Think of it as two overlapping circles; one circle is the set of people who’d use the term “boy” in a purely nonracist but hierachial manner, and the other circle is the set of people using it to establish hierarchy of whites over blacks. Davis was probably in the first circle, but in the portion that overlaps because he is in fact a white man making the comment about a black man (who incidentally isn’t much younger than himself, so it couldn’t even be passed off as a generational hierarchy. Thus it inevitably looks as though the assumed hierarchy is due to race.)

  2. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Your assumptions are correct and for what it’s worth, I think this whole matter has been totally overblown. I am getting sick and tired of keeping a list of what I can or cannot say depending on the context or company in which I use it. Hell, I remember when a gay person was someone who was happy irrespective of their sexual orientation.

    But here’s another take on this. Let’s assume for the sake of arguing that Rep. Davis meant his comment in the old South way of a white man referring to a black man in a demeaning way, or as it is commonly referred to as racist. So what?
    Who really gives a rat’s rear-end?

    I have heard Obama refer to “typical white folks” (whatever that means) which was clearly a racist comment and I didn’t hear anyone getting bent out of shape. I have even had a black man who was around my age refer to me as “white boy” and I didn’t go running off to the PC police.

    What the hell has happened to this country where everyone goes around worrying about what can or can’t be said. And when something is uttered that someone thinks might be one thing or another, days are spent analyzing the comments under a microscope. Is this part of the new “beta male” conversion that’s reputedly happening now?

    If it is, count me out. I have a reputation for speaking my mind without reservation and I am not about to go changing now.

  3. Moonage says:

    You also have to take into consideration the local meanings of a word. That’s where the issue is. Here, and I live in the same state, it means inexperience or lack of the ability to make the proper decisions, as in youth. We’re not really mincing details too much by doing that. All one has to do is look in the dictionary:

    a young man who lacks maturity, judgment, etc.

    Sure, there are other defintions in there, but in the context of how Davis said it, it makes no logical sense to use those. As you noted, trying to take the jump from what Davis said and what has been implied doesn’t seem to make any sense. Yur take is close to the way I’ve grown up with the word. It’s not so much heirarchy as experience and respect, which in this part of the state go hand in hand. Davis was not considering the race of Obama in any way at all, what he was saying was he doesn’t respect Obama’s ability to make that decision because he isn’t mature ( experienced ) enough to make it. I am 45, lived in the South all my life. The only time I’ve ever heard the term “boy” used as a racial slur was on All In The Family. We had much more appropriate slurs to choose from. If you watch Cannonball Run, you’ll see it used in the context most commonly used around here.

  4. SDM says:

    MLK Jr. mentions the commonplace use of “boy” as a racial diminutive in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

  5. Moonage says:

    That has been tossed around all over the net. Two points about that:

    1. That letter was written before James was born, when I was less than one year old, and Davis was five. Things have changed a lot since 1963.
    2. Martin Luther King Jr didn’t write that while in Kentucky. Local slang in Birmingham in 1963 does not mean it was used in Kentucky twenty to forty years later. And, most likely wasn’t used in Canada where Geoff was born. Since Northern Kentucky is the farthest south Davis has ever lived, assuming the cultural norms in Alabama in 1963 affected his dialect forty years later several hundred miles away is a bit of a stretch.

  6. Elmo says:

    Inflection, emphasis …. when used to speak the word. Give a clear indication of its spiritual proximity to another word (which I think most would prefer to simply die of misuse).

    If one doesn’t think the words, or allow them to rent space. Then they can’t ooze out (whatever Davis’ intent, non-intent, or unhip/unsleck/imprecise vocabulary). I’m not of the PC crowd, but one would think Davis will modify his speech in future, to exclude the use of the word (in this associative context).

    I’ve got the feeling that we are indeed moving past color in this campaign (hoping anyway). And back to the important stuff like personality and looks 🙂

    Signed, once had the applique tossed my way, when working as a roustabout, offshore. And in that moment/context, its meaning to this slice o Wonder Bread, was quite clear.

  7. I’ve lived in the south more or less my whole life, and I’m not familiar with it being used as a racial slur. I *am* familiar (very familiar) with it being used as a “diminutive” of sorts – against more or less everybody. For instance, many old southern gentlemen that I’ve known refer to more or less anyone younger than them as “boy”. The phrase “that boy” is very common when describing somebody who you think is doing something silly, although that’s a much more recent usage of it. I personally use the term all the time (to describe my “lily white” siblings, amongst other people) and never would have thought anything of it. But then, I was born in 1978, so its usage as a racial slur was probably before my time.

    My strong suspicion is that its usage was very innocent in this case – though probably unwise, as the Congressman in question is old enough that he really should have known better.

  8. davod says:

    This has`certainly removed bitterness from the blog for a while.

  9. Grewgills says:

    I grew up in Birmingham. I left in 1990, but have gone back for months at a time since. The term was used as a diminutive and it was well known that it was an insult to call a black man or boy, boy. The word could be used affectionately when in the company of close friends or family. Then again, a variety of words that would otherwise have been quite insulting were/are bandied about by friends. People who were older would sometimes use the word to refer to anyone younger than themselves by even a few years, but men in their 40s did not call other men in their 40s boy unless they were close or they intended insult. When used in reference to a black man that insult was/is different and more cutting than when used in reference to a white man.
    Davis was in the army, where I would assume this would be common knowledge, then lived in Kentucky, where it is also likely common knowledge. He might not have understood the usage of boy, but he should have.
    Now that he has apologized and there does not appear to be a pattern of behavior or speech it should be dropped.

  10. I think “boy” here is about on the level of Ross Perot’s “you people” in 1992, at least when used in the third person… impolitic phrasing but not necessarily an effort to insult someone on racial terms. It is intended as an insult, but I think one directed more in terms of Obama’s experience than his ethnicity…. compare the common phrase, “if so-and-so thinks X, that boy’s got another thing coming.”

  11. William d'Inger says:

    I am 65 and was raised in New Orleans. The term “boy” was used when talking to any male of the same or a lower social staus. The status could be by age, income level, dress, haircut style or any other perceived or imagined difference. There’s nothing unusual about that, many languages have class distinctions. The only racial component of the term was the fact that blacks reacted vehemently to being called “boy” whereas others took it a lot more calmly.

    The black reaction caused a lot of confusion. If you called a black exactly the same thing you would have called anybody else and they went ballistic, you wondered what he was all uppity about.

    You see, whites are supposed to be sensitive about using language that might offend others. Well, where’s the part where others make a little effort to understand what whites are saying to begin with???

    Now, I have no idea what Davis meant what he used the term, but I know from a lifetime of Southern living that a lot more offence is taken than is given.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Davis represents suburban Cincinnati and he’s originally from Canada/Pennsylvania. The district is 96% white and 2% African-American.

    I don’t think judging this from the context of the South is appropriate. I grew up in the Midwest, and it was only when I went away to college in the South that I learned that the term “boy” had an explosive connotation. In the Midwest, racial problems tend to be seen as Southern problems, which creates a blind spot.

  13. Chris says:

    You also have to take into consideration the local meanings of a word. That’s where the issue is. Here, and I live in the same state, it means inexperience or lack of the ability to make the proper decisions, as in youth. We’re not really mincing details too much by doing that. All one has to do is look in the dictionary:

    a young man who lacks maturity, judgment, etc.
    Posted by Moonage | April 16, 2008 | 08:19 am

    I think Obama either suffers (or gains, depending on the way you look at it) from looking younger than he is. As James has noted in another post, Bill Clinton was younger than Obama when he ran for the presidency (as was JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt was half a decade younger.)

    I can’t imagine anyone calling T. Roosevelt a ‘boy’ because he was large, mustachioed, and at 42, considered in 1901 very much an adult man. Bill Clinton at 47 was already greying, and although ‘youthful’, looked older than Obama.

    When somebody is calling you a ‘boy’ at 47, and they are around the same age, it must be a little patronising.

  14. Fence says:

    With all due respect, if you see shades of gray here it is because you must not be fully familiar with the context and history. Beyond what has been said, one factor really stands out to me. The point of “boy” in its heydey was to cast arrogant derision at a grown man who, but for segregationism, might well be the speaker’s superior. So to call Obama, quite possibly the next President and Commander in Chief,”boy”, AND to do so while exaggeratedly and sneeringly mocking his basic abilities … you are at Ground Zero of what the slur is all about. Comparisons to friendly uses of the word “boy” are about as out of context here as arguing that the letters b-o-y actually mean great and esteemed ruler in Tibetan.

    PS — Several of you mention living in the South, but I guess a lot may hinge on whether your South is the Whole Foods in Buckhead/Chapel Hill/Arlington, or a gun club meeting in Yazoo County. At the gun club, each and every one knows exactly what Davis’ code word meant in the context they were delivered. And from the tone of Davis’ well-done apology, it is clear he knows it too.

    This isn’t PC gone wild (though there is plenty of that), it would be on the shortest of short lists of things that really, really should not have been said by a 21st century white congressman from Kentucky.

  15. yetanotherjohn says:

    It doesn’t matter. Obama has already used it to defuse the principle issue. Is Obama someone you want in charge of the US nuclear arsenal? A very relevant question in deciding who should be the US president. But the points raised about that capability or lack there of are lost in a cry of racist language. Is that really the greater substantive question here? Is this the “post racial world” where the substantive question gets drowned out by questions of semantics, intent and better phrasing? You will note that the Obama campaign is not answering the charge on the merits. Shouldn’t that give you pause for concern?

  16. Fence says:

    YAJ, perhaps the first discussion ought to be about McCain’s finger on the button, rather than Obama who would presumably generally leave his finger safely off of it. I’m not overly worried about McCain and will probably vote for him, but Obama looks pretty prudent compared to McCain’s taste for unncessary wars and the Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bombam Iran mentality.

  17. Grewgills says:

    you wondered what he was all uppity about.

    Really? Your going to characterize black men as ‘uppity’ for taking offense at being called boy?

  18. just me says:

    I am 39 and grew up in Kentucky.

    I can’t say that anyone around me used the term, however through TV and school I understood that it has a racial context.

    I think you can absolutely argue that the term has a racial context.

    I think you have a harder time arguing that its use automatically equates with the user being a racist. I think it is more than possible to use the term “boy” without a racial context. In high school/college I called pretty much all males about my age boys and all girls girls. Nobody ever objected. I worked in a fast food place with some young black and white men. I arrived one day, said “hello boys” as I walked by a group of them-fromboth races. One of the black guys obviously bristled. I apologized explained what I meant and was careful to not use the term again at work.

    Sometimes you just use a term without thinking.

  19. William d'Inger says:

    Really? Your going to characterize black men as ‘uppity’ for taking offense at being called boy?

    In the time frame referenced in my remark, I would have to answer yes.

    Language changes continuously. A good example is “cripple”. It meant someone who couldn’t walk. The term became perceived to be a prejorative, so it was changed to “handicapped” until handicapped itself evolved into a prejorative. The last I heard, we are using “physically challenged”, but that could be obsolete by now.

    By the same token, if you called a dark skinned person “black” back then, you could wind up dead. It was considered worse than the N-word is today. The proper term was “Negro”, but “colored” was acceptable. Of course, that’s no longer true. Plus “African-American” has pretty much run its course, and we’re back to basic “black”.

    Nowadays, “boy” is widely considered to be a prejorative term when spoken by a white to/about a black. Davis should know that. He shouldn’t have said it.

    Who knows what the Political Correctness Thought Police will dream up next?

  20. just me says:

    I think there has been a push to use the term “differently abled” but it hasn’t really caught on.

    You are correct though that words and their cultural meanings change over time, and what was once deemed acceptable mat be viewed with contempt and visa versa.

    Although I still think it is a huge leap to take one comment and declare somebody a racist. Insenstive, clueless, careless but I think you need more than the one comment to declare racist intent.

  21. yetanotherjohn says:


    The issue was that Obama froze when confronted with a hard choice that need a decision. That is an attribute that portends problems beyond just questions of war. But of course the Obama campaign doesn’t want to discuss that substantive issue, just yell ‘bigot’ and let loose the dogs of political correction.

  22. Mike P says:

    As I said at Matt Yglesia’s place about this…I’ve seen “boy” deployed in one of two ways:

    1) “Boy” = an impudnet youngester who doesn’t know what he’s doing

    2) “Boy” = shorthand for n#$$er

    I’m a 30 year old black guy who currently lives in California but grew up in southern Virginia from the time of my birth until I graduated from college and I have certainly heard “boy” used in the second context. Of course, you could have a older white (or black) man call a younger male of his same race a “boy” in context one and there wouldn’t be the same level of outrage. I find in hard to believe that someone who grew up in the south wouldn’t know that “boy” functions as a racial putdown.

    Having said all that, looked at in the context of Davis’ remarks, he probably meant it along the lines of formulation one, but I could easily see it being formulation two (or both, actually). In any case, calling a Columbia and Harvard educated U.S. Senator (let’s recall that Obama is within 3 years of Davis’ age and hold a higher elected office) a “boy” is just stupid, whatever he meant.

  23. Fence says:


    Your question assumes as fact that Obama froze when action was needed. Can any reliable source verify this happened? I’m sure not going to take the word of a congressman of the other party, just as I wouldn’t take Obama’s word if he said the same thing about Davis freezing in the tobacco subsidy program simulation. What are these simulations anyway, did someone leave a Playstation in the basement of the Senate?

    While I wouldn’t want a President who can’t make quick decisions when they are needed, I don’t really think instant spot decisions are actually necessary nearly as often as they show on 24. I’d be willing to have decisions made a little slower if they might actually be right for a change.

  24. Elmo says:

    Rather impressive thread …. Thanks All.

  25. anjin-san says:

    Who knows what the Political Correctness Thought Police will dream up next?

    This has nothing to do with pc. “Boy” directed at a black man by a white man, is an race based insult. Period. Ask yourself if you would call a black man boy to his face without being prepared to put up your dukes. Or just try it and see how it works out.

    I have black friends who I have been tight with for 30+ years. I would never be comfortable calling one of them “boy”, under any circumstances.

  26. William d'Inger says:

    This has nothing to do with pc.

    I am sorry to have to say this, but the above quote is probably the stupidest thing I have ever read on this blog. Anjin-san, this issue is the definition of political correctness! I recommend you do a Google search on definition: political correctness to learn what the term means. It is the Political Correctness Thought Police who decided the word “boy” is incorrect (along with words like cripple, spastic, crazy, etc.)

  27. Grewgills says:

    PC is designed to mock and demean the very idea of making an effort not to use offensive language. The term carries with it a set of implications that are not present in all racially* demeaning speech.
    If you don’t call your wife a bitch when you are angry are you being politically correct? If she takes offense is she being politically correct? What if her family or friends are offended?
    There are many more examples I could use, but I think you can fill in the blanks.

    * or culturally, religiously, etc offensive language

  28. Ech says:

    Dude, you don’t need a list to know that you don’t call a full grown black man “boy”. You’d have to have your head in the sand (or in another place) to not know that. Cut the anti-PC rhetoric.

  29. anjin-san says:


    You must have the life experience of a turnip…

  30. Mike Bailey says:

    Representative Geoff Davis has made national news in the last few days with a remark he made recently at a Republican fundraising event. He was quoted as saying of Senator Obama: “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button…”

    I do not know what was going through Representative Davis’ mind when he made these remarks, nor do the people commenting on Davis’ remark. Racism has been a serious problem in our country and unfortunately still exists. Ironically, Senator Obama has himself done much recently to help our nation confront the remnants of racism. Since racism is such an important issue, charges of racism should not be leveled lightly. We do not know what was in Geoff Davis’ heart when he used the poorly chosen word “boy”, but at this point it is fair to say we do not have the appropriate weight of evidence to judge this as an intentionally racist remark. Poor judgment? Yes. Deliberately intended to diminish Mr. Obama as an individual and denigrate his experience? Self-evidently. Fanning the flames of partisanship that paralyze our government? Absolutely. But racist? We can not afford to make a snap judgment in such a weighty matter as labeling someone racist.

    It seems regrettable that a possible verbal gaffe has drawn national disapproval to Representative Davis when his voting record in Congress, which is clear and incontrovertible, should be far more influential in helping folks form their opinions of Mr. Davis. Representative Davis has voted against providing healthcare for children via SCHIP. Mr. Davis has voted to protect the payday lending industry, an industry which rewarded him with the dubious honor of donating more money to his campaign than to any other Representative or Senator. And Mr. Davis has continued to carry George W. Bush’s water in defense of the disastrous ongoing occupation in Iraq. I strongly feel that Geoff Davis’ votes give any reasonable observer ample reason to disapprove of his performance, without requiring us to speculate about his recent controversial comments.

    Michael Kelley, MD
    (posted by Mike Bailey, Treasurer – Michael J Kelley for Congress)

  31. Paul D says:

    Will everyone please listen to the MP3 from the speech. You will get the whole context of how “boy” was used and the audience reaction.

    Go to Geoff Davis on Wikipedia, footnote number 2 under “Controversy (Use of Racial Epithet” links to the download the MP3.

    When the whole speech is used to put down Obama with lies (never held a real job, put into the senate for a man who is going to spend time in jail).

    Most important is the audience reaction. It is clear the speakers choice of words got the reaction every speaker wants, laugher and applause.

    It was not a poor choice of words.