Like welfare queens and trickle down economics, political correctness is the canard that keeps on giving. Fifteen years after Politically Correct Bedtime Stories topped the New York Times best-seller list, the American obsession with making fun of political correctness continues unabated on websites like Stuff White People Like and TV shows such as 30 Rock. Cracks about political correctness are now as tired and outdated as mother-in-law jokes so could we please give it a rest already?
When it comes right down to it, political correctness is just good manners yet we Americans are acting like spoiled little brats who refuse to say please and thank you. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, people of color with a preference would rather be called African-Americans by an almost two-to-one margin. So why do so many whites insist on saying blacks? We already pretend Snoop Dogg is cool a decade after Fo Shizzel passed its expiration date so what's an extra five syllables going to hurt if it improves race relations? And yes, I would write European-Americans instead of whites if there were a similar groundswell of support for that term.
Yet to listen to whites tell it, you would think African-Americans are asking for reparations when all they want is to be known for something more than their skin color. We stopped calling Asians yellow people decades ago yet we persist in labeling African-Americans as blacks. What gives? The only time I hear whites use the term is sarcastically, as in "What do they call themselves nowadays? Oh yeah, AF-ro Americans". I could understand this sarcasm if we're discussing Marshall Mathers, who goes by either Eminem or Slim Shady depending on his mood and the time of day. But for the previous 40 years, black was the accepted term and today it is African-American. Now really, how hard is that to keep straight in one's head? Enough with the snideness.
And while we're at it, how come--in a nation in which 70 million of us are either illiterate or functionally illiterate--do we all suddenly become experts in etymology where the word niggardly is concerned? Would we insist on using it if, like a naughty schoolboy, we didn't derive some guilty pleasure from being able to say a word that sounds so similar to the "n" word in casual conversation?
The most famous controversy occurred in 1999 when a white aide to Washington D.C. African-American mayor Anthony A. Williams used it in a budget meeting. Michael Myers of the New York Post wrote of Howard's African-American colleagues offended by his use of the word: “STUPIDITY has no color, but ignorance sure is transparent.”
Frankly, I think the offended African-American aides were the only ones who displayed any intelligence throughout this entire affair. Allow me to tell a story from my own high school days. Our English teacher assigned us to read Oliver Twist then asked after we finished our reading, what secret we discovered about Oliver at the end of the novel. Naturally, I raised my hand and answered "He was a bastard" to the delight of my peers. Technically, he was a bastard but that usage of the word is archaic today and we use illegitimate instead. The same concept applies to niggardly: it is archaic and synonyms like stingy and miserly convey the same meaning so why use it unless you're deliberately trying to get a rise out of your audience?
I've spent a lot of years in college and whenever the topic of Affirmative Action is brought up in class the general consensus amongst the white students is it puts a lot of unqualified African-Americans in high places.
It does not take a major leap of logic to think David Howard considered himself smarter than his fellow African-American aides, who he probably assumed got where they were because of Affirmative Action, and he wanted to prove it by using a word that sounded provocative in the hopes of creating a cause celebre which he could weasel out of by pointing to the dictionary. I think the aides were perceptive enough to know what was going on and that's why they objected.
The problems we have with political correctness are based on perception, not reality. Using terms like African-Americans and physically challenged are no more onerous than a simple please and thank you. And as for niggardly, there are over one million words in the English language. Is sacrificing one to curb misunderstandings really that much of an inconvenience?