A couple days ago over at HardballTalk, Craig Calcaterra wrote about some controversy surrounding Joe Ricketts, the patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts is apparently very anti-Obama and is using his wealth to spearhead some efforts to get a new president elected this fall. One of the tactics his group is considering involves playing up the relationship between Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial minister from Chicago who got a lot of press during the 2008 election.
The New York Times said this:
The $10 million plan, one of several being studied by Mr. Ricketts, includes preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama’s former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as “black liberation theology.”
The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an “extremely literate conservative African-American” who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”
Calcaterra quoted that same chunk from the Times, and then he said this:
Theory: if you specify that you need a “literate” black person — like you need to specify that you don’t want one of those many illiterate ones — you probably do need to “respond to charges of race-baiting,” because you probably are engaging in a bunch of racist baloney.
I am not going to argue this from a political standpoint, but I am going to argue it from a semantical one. I have a ton of respect for Craig as a writer, a person, and a baseball fan. I think he and I would enjoy hanging out and talking baseball over beer (for him) and lemonade (for me), because while we don’t have much in common other than a deep love of baseball, there’s not much else you really need, ya know?
But I think he’s wrong here. Am I saying Joe Ricketts isn’t a racist? Nope, I don’t know the man at all and don’t even know much about him, so I can’t say one way or the other. What I disagree with is Craig’s point that “if you specify that you need a ‘literate’ black person … you probably are engaging in a bunch of racist baloney.”
Here’s the thing: “literate” has several definitions. Yes, the most common one is “able to read and write,” but I can’t imagine that they’re using that definition here. If nothing else, the use of “extremely” tips it off. “Can he read?” “Oh yes, EXTREMELY!” When you’re talking about the ability to read, you have two or three options: literate, illiterate, and occasionally semi-literate. Once you can read, we stop grading you in terms of literacy.
So what could they have meant? On dictionary.com, there are five definitions for “literate” when used as an adjective. The first one is “able to read and write.” The second has to do with knowing literature, which probably isn’t what they’re going for here. The next three:
3. characterized by skill, lucidity, polish, or the like: His writing is literate but cold and clinical.
4. having knowledge or skill in a specified field: literate in computer usage.
5. having an education; educated.
In my opinion, any one of those definitions would fit the context perfectly, and not a single one of them would be objectionable or offensive. Imagine this hypothetical conversation, where they are coming up with a list of requirements for the person they are looking for:
Man 1: Okay, well, he needs to be conservative, of course.
Others: Of course.
Man 2: And it would probably be most effective if he were African-American, to make it clear that we don’t object to Reverend Wright’s race, but to his speech and actions.
Others: That makes perfect sense.
Man 3: And he would definitely need to be extremely literate.
Man 4: You mean able to read and write?
Man 3: Of course not, you moron. The ability to read and write is an implied minimum requirement to do anything in this world. What I mean, of course, is that we need someone who is a polished speaker and writer and who has expertise in the subject matter. Perhaps a law degree from an Ivy League school might draw another nice parallel with Obama.
Man 1: Okay, anything else? Here’s what I have so far: extremely literate, conservative, and African-American.
Others: Sounds good.
Did the final wording end up unfortunate? Absolutely. In an environment where racism DOES exist and racism is often seen even where it doesn’t exist, it was silly to put “extremely literate” and “African-American” in the same sentence. But just as it’s possible to disagree with Barack Obama’s politics without any opinion one way or the other on his race, it is possible to look for someone who is both “extremely literate” and “African-American” without implying that African-Americans in general have a tendency one way or the other with regards to the ability to read and write.