My cellphone pinged on Saturday to say I had a message. I was in the middle of lunch and chose to ignore it. When I picked it up a couple of hours later, I felt the same sickness that millions did, learning that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was shot in an assassination attempt. Television news bubbled over with the news, with fact, spin, and interpretation. Would all 435 members of Congress need ramped up security? Was hate speech the basis of this shooting? I even saw Neil Boortz, the peripatetic Atlanta lawyer and talk show host suggest that President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama had been guilty of some of the same hate speech that the right has been accused of. Please.
The talk about hate speech, however, is important and I'm going to own my part of it, and apologize. A bazillion years ago (actually in 1992) I made a wisecrack about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Anyone who knows me would see it as a wisecrack, but those who don't saw it as hate speech. Here's the background. Thomas said he would live to be 120 to stay on the court to frustrate liberals. I replied that the average black man had a life expectancy of about 65, and that if his wife fed him lots of butter and eggs (if her recent call to Anita Hill is any indication she isn't cooking much these days), ingredients for high cholesterol and heart trouble, he'd die an early death. Conservatives called it a death wish. Death by breakfast, I responded, still in jest. As if someone were standing over Thomas with an Uzi forcing him to eat that butter and eggs. The wisecrack has to be taken even less seriously if Justice Thomas' purported commitment to physical fitness and working out is taken into consideration.
No matter, and no excuses. My comment about Thomas, my wisecrack, was in poor taste. Out of line. Out of order. I am sorry if the words I spoke at all contributed to the climate in which we live, to the vitriol that has poisoned the atmosphere. My apology does not mitigate or reduce my contempt for Clarence Thomas and for his arrogant dismissal of liberals and for the African American community. If I could do it all over, I'd have wished him the bacon and eggs, or simply made reference to the black male life expectancy rate and his own hubris, but left out the comment about his early death. The fact is that none of us should joke about death. It just isn't funny.
To be sure, the right has had a great time distorting my words, and they've disseminated them widely. And anytime a liberal makes an inappropriate comment they take their media machine and work it overtime. These conservatives invoke free speech when pastors pray for President Obama's death from their pulpits (if it were any other president, that pastor might have been looking the FBI in the face). These same conservatives say they aren't racist when they use images of apes to describe the First Family. These conservatives have both fingerprints and footprints in the poisoned language that poses as free speech. Yet it is true that it takes sticks and twigs, not just logs and trees, to build a fire. Was my comment one of the twigs?
It has taken me nearly two decades and an attempted assassination to understand the damage that my wisecrack might have caused, not to Justice Thomas, but to the public discourse. I hope it won't take our nation two more decades to understand and embrace the notion of speech civility, even for, no, especially for, political opponents. Every day, and in every way, I tell my students, faculty, and staff that I value civility. Yet, my comment about Clarence Thomas was not only uncivil, it was ugly and unnecessary. And it really wasn't that funny. I regret it. I apologize for it. I wish I could take it back.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.