Race: September 2008 Archives

Uppity

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Rep. Lynn Westmoreland represents a Georgia district in the U.S. House. He's recently come under fire for a very puzzling comment:

Just from what little I've seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they're a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they're uppity

As might be expected, he's been criticized for using the word 'uppity' when he was talking about a successful black couple. But then there's his defense:

I've never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense. It is important to note that the dictionary definition of 'uppity' is 'affecting an air of inflated self-esteem -- snobbish.'

I've certainly heard it used in that sense, although it's never been from the mouth of someone who meant it. It's always been someone describing someone else's negative attitude toward "uppity Negroes". I'm not sure it's in common use anymore among genuine racists, but I wouldn't know, since I don't run in those circles. But I can imagine someone who doesn't travel in racist circles who also doesn't travel in very racially aware circles, where people might put it in the mouths of racists they're discussing. Such a person may have never heard the expression "uppity Negro". Sure, it's possible.

But there are two problems even if he really hasn't heard of that expression. The first is his claim that 'uppity' and 'elitist' are synonymous. I don't think that's true. To be uppity is to extend yourself above your place, which assumes there's a proper place you're supposed to remain in. To be elitist is to think oneself higher than others, which assumes you think you're better than others. The former is an attitude toward a place that someone else has judged fit for you. The latter is an attitude toward people you yourself have judged lower than you. So the elitist charge reflects badly on the views of the elitist. Saying someone is uppity reflects badly on the views of the person saying it. That's an important difference. Westmoreland may well not know that difference, but that would just show that he doesn't understand how the words are used.

If he's going to give this defense, he has to say not just that he was ignorant of a way of putting Negroes in their place that was very common in the place he represents in Congress, certainly during his own lifetime (he was born in 1950). He also has to admit to being pretty ignorant about the word's basic meaning even in a non-racial context.

But there's something even more puzzling about his statement. Read it carefully. He doesn't say that the Obamas are uppity, as a racist would. He says they think they're uppity. That means (if he understands the word, anyway) that he thinks they think they're rising above a place that they themselves would describe as their proper place, something they shouldn't rise above. Does he really think the Obamas think that's true of themelves? I doubt it. And that means there's yet another aspect of how the word 'uppity' is used that he doesn't understand. I'm beginning to think he just doesn't know much about the word at all. Perhaps he's heard it once or twice and somehow formed some false beliefs about how the word functions. I know I've found out real meanings of words that I had thought meant something else, usually inferred from a few occurrences in books I've read when I've used context clues to figure out the term but never bothered to look it up. It's possible that's what's happened here.

If that's right, he probably isn't lying when he says he's never heard it in a racial context. Someone familiar with that context isn't likely to misuse it in both of the ways that he does. But it's hard to say that it's not an ignorant statement. It's (at the very least) ignorant about what the word itself means and how it functions syntactically. I've only seen two news stories, a blog post, and a very long comment thread on this, but it's a little disturbing that I didn't see anyone making either of these points. Is the American public at large that ignorant of how this word is used? Maybe it's just left our national vocabulary except when referring to how racists talk, and that isn't enough to clue people in to how the word functions. Can that really be?

Eugene Volokh uses scare quotes to refer to The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and The Jewish Conspiracy, both of which he then goes on to admit to being a member of (along with most of the contributors to his blog). Scare quotes usually indicate that you believe there's no such thing, and I'm sure that's actually his view. But then he says he's a member of both. This is an interesting set of views.

He must think these terms refer to the groups that Hillary Clinton and anti-semitists (respectively) call by those names, and those groups really exist (because a group is just a group of people), but the groups don't have the features believed to be true of them (among other things, being a conspiracy). If that's right, then he's taking the names as proper names (and not definite descriptions, which wouldn't refer to anything) and taking them refer to exactly the groups the people whose false beliefs generated the existence of those groups (or at least generated their social relevance if the group exists simply because the members exist).

It struck me that this is almost exactly what the majority view in philosophy of race says about races. Races are social kinds whose existence (or at least social relevance if the group exists merely because its members exist) was caused by false beliefs by those doing the classifying. But the difference is that everyone uses race-terms, even those who pretend there aren't any races. Most people, on the other hand, don't believe in either of these so-called conspiracies. That's why his speaking this way sounded funny to me in this case, almost as if it requires saying it tongue-in-cheek.

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