The Monique Davis Story Hasn’t Gone Away Just Yet…

First, there was the verbal attack by Illinois State Rep. Monique Davis, and a week later, there was the apology. Initially, I thought the story would end there and that the apology was the final chapter, but upon reading several comments and postings stating how the apology was weak/not enough at best and insincere at worst, I’m starting to reconsider.

I’d like to see a public statement about her remarks (i.e. why she said it’s dangerous for children to know about atheism… and why she thinks atheists are hell-bent on destroying society… and what she is doing to remedy the situation) in addition to her private call to atheist Rob Sherman.

Even national organizations are calling for this.

The American Humanist Association questions her apology:

“As far as we know, the only source for this alleged April 9 apology is the Web site of the immediate victim. It hasn’t been corroborated or confirmed,” declared Mel Lipman, president of the American Humanist Association. “Moreover, even if confirmed, the apology was only private. That just isn’t good enough.”

“Such a purely private apology, even when publicly reported, misses the point,” declared Lipman today. “What Monique Davis said was an offense to all nontheistic people, including humanists like me, not merely an offense to a single atheist. And her words were uttered publicly, so only a public apology will suffice.

“On behalf of humanists everywhere, we will accept such a public apology if it comes,” [Executive Director Roy] Speckhardt said. “But this won’t mean that the godless now enjoy a level playing field. We still have a ways to go. Had Representative Davis’ remarks been directed at Jews or Christians instead of atheists, she would have been forced to resign.”

But that’s not all.

The controversy has now taken a disturbing turn.

When Sherman initially posted on his website about Davis’ remarks, he had written this:

Now that Negroes like Representative Monique Davis have political power, it seems that they have no problem at all with discrimination, just as long as it isn’t them who are being discriminated against.

Did he just write what I think he wrote…?

Eric Zorn asked him about his use of the N-word:

… I’ve interviewed him scores of times in the past 22 years and never detected even a hint of racism or bigotry, so I regarded his use of a once-standard but now unacceptable word to be the result of a moment of rhetorical clumsiness or tone-deafness that he ought to rethink.

Sherman replied to my note:

["Negroes" is] what the group was called when they were being discriminated against, but now that this same group has political power, discrimination is OK, as long as it’s not them that’s being discriminated against. That’s the reason for the use of the term.

Invoking Civil Rights-era terminology to sharpen an attempt to draw an ironic (and dubious) analogy between persecuted African Americans and persecuted atheists is not a polemical stunt I would recommend to anyone.

A word like “Negroes” is going to create way more heat than light in the 21st century, no matter how many times Martin Luther King Jr. himself used it 40 years go, even if you add, as Sherman did, that King is one of your heroes.

Sherman sent me note at 6 a.m. Thursday saying he’d removed the passage from his site.

“That shows good sense,” I replied.

The Daily Illini‘s Jonathan Jacobson pointed this wording out as well, and Zorn told Sherman he ought to issue an apology of his own:

But I agree with Jacobson that Sherman ought to issue his own apology either way.

Sherman doesn’t quite see it that way. In an interview with me this afternoon Sherman said that “Negro” was a term of respect when he was growing up (he just turned 55) and that he had no idea it was now considered derogatory.

He said he removed the offending passage after receiving several critial e-mails and before he saw the Daily Illini column, and he conceded that it was a mistake trying “to consolidate a rather long idea into one word.”

He said he considers this an explanation, but not an apology.

That’s not how you help your own cause…

If Sherman honestly didn’t know that the term is now considered offensive, then it’s just tremendous ignorance on his part.

The use of the word itself may not even be his biggest faux pas.

As one of Zorn’s commenters states:

The sentiment that he’s lumping together all black politicians in with Rep. Davis is [what is] racially offensive, not the particular word he used to describe the ethnic group. That the word was borderline offensive, especially in context just heightens the problem.

This is why he needs to apologize.

The ball was in Davis’ court. The spotlight was on her to make a more pronounced apology about her malicious comments.

This lapse of judgment (or cultural knowledge) by Sherman is going to take the attention away from her.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Aj

    If Sherman honestly didn’t know that the term is now considered offensive, then it’s just tremendous ignorance on his part.

    Word policing is so petty, the idea that a word can be “offensive” is so absurd I don’t know what to think. Fuck it, if he’s not racist that’s all I care about. I’m in the business of breaking taboos, and it just might be that taboos are used to discriminate against people some of the time.

    I don’t really understand why he had to say anything about Davis’s identity, or any group she may identify with. Davis is not part of a hive mind, and not everyone who identify as African American think like her. I would have said something like this:

    Rep. Monique Davis, you identify with two groups that have been discriminated against a lot, African Americans and women, so I appeal to your knowledge of discrimination for you to find some empathy to at least consider the motives behind skepticism and secularism without unwarranted demonization and distrust.

  • QrazyQat

    Faux outrage is common among the rightwing, and I’m afraid it’s also common among the sorts of Christians who attack others who don’t share their specific beliefs. The use of faux outrage is to deflect attention away from their own behavior, and it’ll probably be used for that purpose in this instance.

  • http://alenonimo.com.br/ Alenônimo

    About the “Negroes” thing…

    Here in Brazil, it’s very common to call an black person as “negro” (it’s “negro”, in portuguese too).

    Negro means just that: a black person. There’s no offense in there.

    Try to call here any negro as black (“preto” in portuguese) here and you’ll be called an racist. Go figure.

    This is just plain bullshit. Connotations are given and taken all the time. But real bullshit is to call any negro as “african-people” or “african-american”. Heck, they’re not from Africa just because their color skin! This is the real non-sense.

    Calling people using “bigger-but-not-offensive-names” won’t work for long. What will happen when “african-people” gets an bad connotation? What will you call negroes then? “Dark-coloured-skin-people”? “High-melanine-skinned-person”? Fuck that. That’s the same as calling atheists as “bright” to avoid bad connotations.

    It’s shame me seen you picking on that minor detail. Sherman probably just meant what I told.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Alenonimo,

    Connotations are given and taken all the time–does that mean you should ignore them? Not knowing the current connotations in your current location is, at best, a display of cultural ignorance, and at worst, an display of willful bigotry. Regardless of what it used to mean, or what it may mean in Brazil, using “negro” here, today, is deservedly shameful, especially for a civil rights activist.

    Furthermore, half the problem isn’t just an offensive word, but an offensive context to go with it–a botched analogy to black civil rights. Sherman blew it. At least he didn’t do quite as badly as Davis.

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    Sherman shouldn’t and need not apologize for using that word. It is pretty obvious from the context and his explanation that he is not using the word in a manner that is meant to be offensive. The phrase, “I’m going to kill you” can be either offensive or benign, depending on the context of its utterance, as well, and this applies to any word. To willfully interpret a word as inherently offensive, totally disregarding the context and the subtlety of language, and then to use that as a means for trying to defame someone as a racist or a bigot is a lot more ignorant, if you ask me.

    The difference between Davis’s remarks and Sherman’s is that Davis’s marks can not only be interpreted as offensive, but the speaker’s intent in using those words was to degrade and offend atheists. I’m reminded of the man who once lost his job for using the word “niggardly”, because everyone else thought it was common knowledge that this word is always offensive.

  • http://ichthyologistbright.blogspot.com Laurie Soule

    I’m 43 and generally try to be PC , but I had no idea that there was a new “N” word. I wouldn’t normally use that particular word (I would use African American – luckily, apparently) but I didn’t know it had gone out of favor. I try not to label anyone with anything except “human.” When talking about race, anyway. Religion is another matter…

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    That’s what I mean. Her apology is meaningless to me because she is still a bigot. So what that she apologized for yelling. I don’t care that she yelled. I care that her views are abhorrent.

    I don’t think there’s any need to comment on the negro statement. Some people are happily stuck in the 1950s. Any Rip Van Winkle who lives in America and doesn’t know that the word negro is offensive here needs to wake up.

  • http://ichthyologistbright.blogspot.com Laurie Soule

    Any Rip Van Winkle who lives in America and doesn’t know that the word negro is offensive here needs to wake up.

    Well, I’ve lived here 41 of 43 years, and I assume that Rob Sherman has lived here 55 years, and apparently neither of us knew, so maybe it’s not that common a knowledge. The only difference is that Mr. Sherman actually used the word and found out the hard way.

  • Karen

    Wait a second. Since when has “Negro” become an offensive word?

    You’d better tell the United Negro College Fund about it. The “n” word is not Negro, it’s a slang variation on that word intended historically to be a slur (when used by non-Negroes, that is).

    I’ll agree that Negro is outmoded, and probably not preferred by most black people, but I don’t think Sherman meant it to be offensive, nor should it automatically be taken that way.

  • http://www.SecularDignity.net Secular Dignity

    Disclosure: SWM, 37.

    The sentiment that he’s lumping together all black politicians in with Rep. Davis is [what is] racially offensive, not the particular word he used to describe the ethnic group. That the word was borderline offensive, especially in context just heightens the problem.

    This is why he needs to apologize.

    I disagree. Why should be apologize? She is an elected official. She volunteered for the job. Plus, this is a democracy (at least on paper). We should push back on our elected officials. Maybe the word choice was bad, but the sentiment is appropriate.

    Before you pile on about white politicians, remember: I am the guy thinking about moving to Canada.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    Any Rip Van Winkle who lives in America and doesn’t know that the word negro is offensive here needs to wake up.

    Seconded. Even if you don’t agree that the word is offensive, especially in the context of criticism, this was just positively stupid anyway. Sherman basically just shot himself and every cause he cared about advocating in the foot. Moronic.

  • Josh Spinks

    “Negro” clearly, to anyone not trapped under a rock the past 50 years, is an pejorative word in America. If we followed the it’s-just-a-word line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that Davis’s original statements were not offensive to atheists. Afterall, they’re just words, it’s not as if they can mean something offensive, right?

    It’s very disappointing to find so many here contorting logic to justify this.

  • Mriana

    Alright, help me out here. As a mother of two bi-racial sons (Black and White or African-American and Euro-American if you prefer) I missed something. How is the word “Negro” bad. It’s not like the other N-word, which I find distainful.

    In all honesty, I view this man as a throw back to a different generation, who in the heat of the moment went back to old words, which were acceptable for his time. It doesn’t excuse the generation difference, if that is what it is, esp since he is living in the 21st century, but sometimes older people do not always think in modern terms when upset about something- if at all, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he is racist. Of course, this brings into question his age. IF he is of MLK Jr’s generation, then I can forgive him for such word usage. Not excuse him, but forgive him. If he had used the other N-word, I would not be as tolerant.

    So, if there are any African-Americans on the blog who can explain this to me, I would appreciate being enlightened for the sake of my sons. Thank you. :)

  • Mriana

    Negro means just that: a black person. There’s no offense in there.

    Yes, that was my other thought, so I am very confused as to how anyone could take offense to it, because it is not the other N-word. It makes no sense to me as to why Black Americans would take offense to the word Negro. I’m lost.

  • http://ichthyologistbright.blogspot.com Laurie Soule

    Thank you Karen and Mriana. It is definitely a different N-word that I’ve alway known (and would never use in a million years). But then again, I’m a Naturalized Euro-American.

  • Mriana

    I was born in the U.S. and grew up as a child/grandchild/great grandchild of MLK’s generation and previous generations. Therefore I understand how words change in meaning over the years- ie “Gay 90s” and “Feeling gay”- the last did not mean one was a homosexual, but rather happy and if a 90 y.o plus person were to say it, well you have to consider the generation gap and what they most likely mean.

    So, I have to question rather or not he meant it as some are taking it- although I am not sure if Zorn is in his 60s up or not. If he is, I, for one, have to take this into account and assume that he probably did not mean as younger generations are taking it.

    Then, as someone pointed out, there is “The Negro College Fund”, which was started during a time when the word “Negro” was acceptable and has not change. No one has made an issue of it, as far as I know.

  • Vincent

    I’m only 36 and I never knew negro was considered offensive.
    It’s no more offensive than caucasian.
    I agree he should not have made a broad generalization based on race, but the use of that word seemed perfectly appropriate to me.

  • Karen

    In all honesty, I view this man as a throw back to a different generation, who in the heat of the moment went back to old words, which were acceptable for his time

    I agree with this. The word is outdated but it’s clearly not pejorative, and I don’t know why people think it is, unless they’re confused about language.

  • http://www.gangwon.blogspot.com kwandongbrian

    A 40 year old Canadian here; I would never use the ‘N’ word with two ‘g’s but I thought ‘negro’ was safe.
    I think it is a little clunky or old-fashioned but safe to use.
    On the other hand, my Firefox spell-check tells me it is misspelled, though, and the closest word it offers is “negroid”.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    If you ask Wikipedia, “negro” is totally an ethnic slur (there are 3 citations!); the few exceptions include the United Negro College Fund and in Brazil. Yes, all of you who didn’t know it was pejorative, you really do need to get with it.

    You especially need be conscious of these things if you are a civil rights activist who is working towards consciousness-raising.

  • Claire

    Miller said:

    If you ask Wikipedia, “negro” is totally an ethnic slur (there are 3 citations!)

    Wikipedia is scarcely an authoritative source, and this is one of the times when it really wasn’t a good choice at all to prove a point. If you actually check out those Wikipedia citations, they don’t hold up very well.

    The first citation links to an online dictionary which says the word ‘Negro’ is sometimes offensive, which means it isn’t always. Then it refers the reader to the usage notes under ‘black’, and those usage notes don’t say it’s offensive at all, just outdated.

    The second citation is to an article about changing place names in Florida, and it makes it clear that in the names they are changing, it was used as a substitute for the other ‘n’ word.

    The third citation links to a ‘database’ of ethnic slurs that includes a lot of words that are not really slurs at all, except when used as intentionally as such, for example: Canadian(?), coalminer(??), and sputnik(???). It’s far from an authoritative source, since the original database basically consists of everyone contributing anything they think is a slur, which is hardly a rigorous criteria for inclusion.

    I’m with Karen, Mriana, Laurie et al – it’s not necessarily offensive, just outmoded (I’m 52, for what it’s worth). I don’t use it, because I move with the times, but neither would I automatically think that anyone using it meant it as a slur.

  • http://ichthyologistbright.blogspot.com Laurie Soule

    Thank you Claire! I had also looked up those three quotes, and found the same thing, but I was just too tired to write it all out. Must be getting old…

    Signed, an Albino Limey.
    Funny. I’ve never considered limey a slur, but it’s in that database. Now lobsterback on the other hand…. :-)

  • cautious

    As a 26 year old Kraut/mick/etc-American…

    Something about Sherman’s words struck me as offensive the first time I read them. There’s something …well, something made me uneasy when a white man referred to a black woman as a Negro, whilst comparing his situation to that of Rosa Parks, whilst saying that the black woman should understand what it’s like to be discriminated against.

    My first reaction was that he was basically calling Davis what white males called Rosa Parks in her time: an uppity, uh, to censor for today, Negro.

    Now I see it differently: it was a hasty attempt to appeal to her status as a minority to understand the quashing of the rights of a minority outside of her own.

    That said… black Americans were brought here in chains and forced to work under bondage for over 200 years, and then when freed still were treated as second-class (or worse) citizens for another 100 years, and now 40 years later there’s still enormous gaps between white America and black America. We atheists try to compare ourselves to other minority groups in America in order to build understanding, but, seriously… when was the last time a guy was dragged behind a truck for not praying? Or beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die because he was caught reading Dawkins?

    So, yeah, Sherman said something that was worded pretty badly, and if we pretended that it had instead read:

    Now that queers like Representative Monique Davis have political power

    We probably would kindly ask Sherman to reconsider his words. …right?

    That all being said, he used a non-neutral racial word after being told by a state representative that his people were destroying America. Everyone involved had a bad day, and cooler heads a week and a half later are thankfully calling for beneficial dialogue.

  • http://www.halfheartedfanatic.com Ted Johnson

    I think Monica Davis is God’s gift to atheism.

    The usual theocrats and opponents of secularism are stunningly silent on this incident–and you can’t say that this hasn’t hit the mainstream media. The fact that they haven’t embraced, or at least defended her may mean there is a place of bigotry where even they won’t go.

    I’ve written more on this here.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    I just did another post on this story this morning. I really wish we could keep it in the news until we get a public apology, but I’m not sure how best to accomplish this.

  • Bill Green

    A previous commentator said
    when was the last time a guy was dragged behind a truck for not praying? Or beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die because he was caught reading Dawkins?

    Well this clip from a UK tv show in Alabama may change your mind.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYQy9qm8sGk

    The reason atheists do not get this treatment is because they are (most of the time) intelligent enough not to do daft things (hey! maybe that is why we are freethinkers) and fortunately we might think we know what someone is thinking but we can’t see it. Not like skin colour to a racist. But why not go down south with your “I’m an atheist and proud of it” -shirt on and see how you get on. Go to an open air rally and start quoting from Dawkins. I dare you.


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