The ‘N’ Word: Mark Latham Goes Back In Time To Join Eric Abetz In A Different Century


The use of the term ‘Negro’ is not necessarily racist, but it still says quite a lot about the people using it. Michael L. Ondaatje and Mark Chou explain.

Mark Latham may be an expert on many things, but African American history isn’t one of them.

Appearing on Channel Nine’s The Verdict late last week, Latham vigorously defended the term ‘Negro’ as an appropriate descriptor for black Americans, and attacked members of the ‘outrage industry’ for daring to suggest the term was offensive.

The former Labor leader was weighing into the debate that had been ignited the previous week, when Liberal senator Eric Abetz controversially referred to US Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, as ‘the Negro American on the Supreme Court’.

Seizing on the comment, Bill Shorten labelled Abetz a ‘dinosaur’, but other critics, including Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, went further, accusing the former Employment Minister of ‘racism’.

Abetz also had his fair share of defenders. One of these, conservative pundit Andrew Bolt, claimed that Abetz had been ‘framed’ by the ‘race police’. Like Latham, Bolt couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t as if Abetz had called Thomas a ‘n*gger’ or a ‘darkie’.

Let’s be clear: whatever Latham, Abetz or Bolt might have us believe, it’s highly unusual in 2015 to hear an African American being described as a ‘Negro’. In his response to critics, Abetz maintained that ‘Negro’ was acceptable because 52 years ago, Martin Luther King used the term 15 times in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Former Labor Opposition leader Mark Latham.
Former Labor Opposition leader Mark Latham.

Here, a little historical perspective might be useful. King did use the term in that speech, and in many other speeches. But he was also assassinated in 1968. American culture and language did not stop with King. America and the world have evolved since the late 1960s.

Latham, like Abetz, fails to accept that racial terminology might have evolved too. On The Verdict, he asserted that ‘Negro’ was a ‘respectful’ and ‘dignified’ way to refer to African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, before something changed in the 1990s, ‘or more recently’. With his trademark aggression, Latham demanded to know: ‘who are these unelected, self-appointed, people who have decided that we need to speak like them’?

The people to whom Latham refers are African American people themselves. It’s true that ‘Negro’ was once the standard designation for black people in the United States; indeed, the term replaced ‘colored’ as the most common way of referring to African Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the term ‘Negro’ had fallen out of favour with African Americans. After centuries of slavery, segregation and second-class citizenship, black people, inspired by the black freedom movement, decisively rejected the ‘Negro’ label and came to identify as ‘black’ and, later, as ‘African American’.

In this new world, the old label became a grim reminder of the history of black subordination in America. Just as the former slaves had cast off the names given to them by their masters at the end of the civil war in the 1860s, a new generation of black Americans spurned the term ‘Negro’ in an important act of political self-assertion. They would now define who they were, and what they would be called.

For the most part, Americans adapted to the new racial vocabulary. The New York Times abandoned ‘Negro’ in 1972, and other major publications and institutions followed soon after. By the end of the 1970s, references to ‘Negro’ were the exception rather than the rule in American public life.

Former Abbott government minister, Eric Abetz.
Former Abbott government minister, Eric Abetz.

How Abetz and Latham, as experienced political figures, failed to realise this is mystifying. It is particularly mystifying considering all the commentary in recent years about the election of the first ‘African American’ or ‘black’ president of the United States. Just as Barack Obama is not the ‘Negro’ president, Michelle Obama is not the ‘Negress’ First Lady. Like ‘Negro’ for black men, the term ‘Negress’ was once a descriptor for black women. Yet nobody in their right mind would use this terminology to describe a black woman today. These terms are archaic.

Returning to Eric Abetz, the question left to ask is whether the senator’s use of the term ‘Negro’ to describe Clarence Thomas marks him out as racist?

Well, not necessarily. Abetz was certainly guilty of historical and cultural ignorance in his use of the term. He then engaged in a silly political tussle to justify something that shouldn’t really be justifiable in the 21st century.

But Abetz’s critics should pause before condemning him as ‘racist’. Here, it’s important to distinguish between cultural ignorance, which Abetz is most likely guilty of, and racism, which is underpinned by bigotry and hate. They are not the same.

When we dismiss people as ‘racist’, we can miss important opportunities to inform and educate through thoughtful and intelligent public conversation.

In 2015, we should do our best to refer to people by the labels they choose for themselves. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It is simply a matter of respect.

For what it’s worth the ‘Negro’ Clarence Thomas prefers the label ‘black’.

Michael L. Ondaatje is National Head of Arts, and Associate Professor of History, at the Australian Catholic University. Mark Chou is Associate Professor of Politics at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.