Jewish World Review June 18, 2002 / 8 Tamuz, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Stuffy 'correctness' robs races of give and take | I'm laughing, but I'm also keeping an eye on the white kids.

Curiosity, I guess. I'm waiting to see if they get the jokes. To judge from their weak and infrequent titters, they don't.

I'm on one side of a darkened theater, they are on the other. It's just us in here, watching "Undercover Brother," the Eddie Griffin spoof about a black secret agent man for whom the '70s never ended. No, it's not the most subtle comedy in the world, but as the movie riffs on white folks for rhythmless dancing and an unnatural love of mayonnaise, as it skewers black folks for 10-part handshakes and a propensity to see conspiracy around every corner ... as it dances fearlessly and funnily, in other words, along the fault lines of stereotype, I keep thinking that it deserves more than a ha-ha here and a ha-ha there.

Later, it occurs to me that there are probably two reasons those kids weren't busting a gut. One, they were simply too young to appreciate all those '70s references. And two, these are the years in which race has become "The Thing at Which We Dare Not Laugh." I mean, outside the coarse confines of shock radio and black comedy clubs, there isn't much that passes for racial satire these days. That's one reason the "Boondocks" comic strip gives people apoplexy. We have become entirely too "sensitive" for such things. Entirely too correct, politically and otherwise.

I'll tell you, though: While some observers say Griffin's movie made them nostalgic for big Afros, funk music and butterfly collars, it made me pine for Richard Pryor, Norman Lear, Mel Brooks, Robin Williams, people who dared use their humor to actually say something about race. Not necessarily something wise or profound but ... SOMETHING.

We hadn't yet learned to fear race in the '70s. To the contrary, people of the era between Jim Crow and political correctness sought to create a vocabulary that allowed black and white to communicate across race with some level of intimacy, comfort and even, I daresay, affection. That kind of communication doesn't - can't - exist now, not in an atmosphere where African-Americans, European-Americans, gay Americans and woman Americans have learned to watch one another warily for the slightest whisper of insult.

I have to tread carefully here. Wouldn't want to leave the mistaken impression that I'm singing a lament for the bad old days when racial affront was common and cost-free. I lose no sleep over the fact that saying something offensive nowadays can cost a person the good opinion of others or, indeed, his or her career. And yes, it troubles me that people still live at such a remove from one another that we often have not a clue what might be perceived as insulting, like the store manager who put fried chicken on sale in honor of Black History Month.

But the flip side is that sometimes, insult feels like a hair-trigger reflex. Like something we keep on retainer, always ready. We seem less concerned with who hurts whom than with who tags whom in a never-ending game of gotcha.

I've been called "racist" by white people because I called them white people. Seen black folks go ballistic because a white guy said "niggardly," which means "cheap" and has no racial overtones.

Granted, insult is a subjective thing. You have a right to draw the line around your comfort zone. But the point is, we no longer draw any line, no longer give much thought to context or intent before deciding whether to be insulted. These days, everything is insult. What can be more poisonous to true communication?

The '70s were not - take it from a survivor - a decade of perfect social enlightenment. Indeed, that era was sometimes self-conscious in its hipness and self-righteous in its rebellion.

For all that, though, there was something warm and real in those years that has not survived into these. Instead, the way black talks to white and vice versa has become oddly stilted and strangely formal, a humorless and indirect dialect whose aim seems to be to communicate as little as possible.

Maybe it's correct, but that doesn't make it right.

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