Roland Martin doesn't understand the nature of taboo. More specifically, he doesn't get that prominent black people have a special responsibility to understand taboo in America.
To wit: In American English, there are precisely two words that qualify as profane. I don't mean the "bad words" that tend to have four letters, the most common of which begin with D, H, S and F. They are termed "profanity," but in 2012 they are not.
Today they are just salty. Most Americans of all demographics use especially the first three, in casual conversation in most settings. You can assume they're gaily tossed about during most after-work drink sessions, walks down the street and even baby showers.
No, real modern American profanity is not about religion, excretion or sex. One of our true curse words, in the sense that an anthropologist would recognize, is the n-word. Here is a word whose utterances truly horrify all of us (except in its alternate usage as a term of fellowship among black men). Use the n-word in public as a white person, and it's a headline for a week. I have watched white people carefully step around uttering it even to refer to it. It's a truly bad word.
Then there's another one: the f-word used to refer to gay men. In public discourse in modern American society, one does not pop off with that one. Characters on television now often slip in some of the four-letter words, but not the n-word and not the f-word, unless they are being depicted as close to evil.
We do not publicly slur homosexuality. And shouldn't. Overall, racism and homophobia are America's true taboos in our moment. These are places we don't go.
I have known Martin slightly over the years, and he's a good person. He certainly didn't mean literally the violence he suggested in his tweets. Martin intended it as jolly locker-room talk, one senses.
But all we have to do is imagine a white person tweeting about smacking the "ish" out of a black person and we understand that Martin's tweets just weren't funny. Notions such as men in pink suits needing a visit from "#teamwhipdatass" are profoundly disrespectful. Any sense that it's somehow OK to refer to gay people in this manner is one that implies gay inferiority.
The Martin episode joins some others in a common mistake: famous black men casually exhibiting homophobia, assuming that it will be taken as just ordinary American high spirits. Tracy Morgan's infamous stand-up riff on how he would beat up a son if he turned out to be gay was one. Grey's Anatomy's Isaiah Washington calling fellow actor T.R. Knight the f-word during a backstage altercation was another, and now Martin.
I do find it unlikely that John King or David Gregory will be caught tweeting towel-snapping comments about gay men, no matter how they may feel in private. Nor have I read a story about Ashton Kutcher or Steve Carell calling someone the f-word during a professional argument.
It might not be irrelevant, then, that a Pew poll showed 64 percent of blacks believe homosexuality is wrong, compared with 48 percent of whites. Or that black voters played a disproportionate role in getting the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008. CNN's Don Lemon, who came out last summer, commented that black homophobia is partly rooted in the strong role of conservative Christianity in black culture (Martin supported the black church's position on homosexuality in a 2006 column).
In any case, there is something especially unseemly and even self-defeating when this kind of bar-stool homophobia shows through from smart, famous black people. Black America calls on the rest of the country to exhibit perhaps the most heightened sensitivity about the n-word that has ever been accomplished regarding a slur in all of human history. The last thing we can afford is to have prominent black people casually dissing the people who are arguably forging a second civil rights revolution today — gay people.
We can't afford it because not only does it look bad, but it also saps our legitimacy in the public eye. Oh, not too many people in polite society will say so too loudly. But if black people get too cozy shouting from the rooftops a Mad Men-era take on homosexuality, then claims that America needs to address the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow will exhibit even less purchase on the nation's heart than they do already.
Martin really meant no harm, I am sure. However, with him being regularly one of the first people out of the gate to comment on the latest racial fracas in the media, it just won't do for him to be tweeting about knocking the ish, or anything else, out of anybody. Martin, like all black people, expects America to observe a taboo about giving vent to racism. He must also, then, observe the other taboo, about homophobia.
In his talk with GLAAD and public comments afterward, he should admit that he made a mistake. He should be sure he won't do it again and understand why: Progressive black people don't tweet gay jokes, any more than progressive white gay people tweet about the latest goings-on among — you know. And then CNN should get him back on board to do the job he has always done so well.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.