Westmoreland’s “uppity” comment is even more damning than you think

I think we’re looking at Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s “uppity” quote all wrong. I don’t think he meant to say it, and not just in an “Oops, I forgot that’s not a word I use in front of the microphones” kind of way. I’m not letting him off the hook, though, so bear with me.

I’m a writer by trade and a copy editor by vocation, so I think a lot about language. I often find myself trying to figure out where a writer lost the thread of her sentence and rewrite it so it says what she meant to say. This involves looking a sentence that doesn’t make sense and deciding which clues to pay attention to and which to ignore. In my opinion, the structure of the sentence suggests that Westmoreland was going to end his sentence with a word like “superior,” but his brain misfired while he was speaking and substituted “uppity.”

Look at the whole sentence: “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they’re uppity.”

Doesn’t make any sense. People don’t consider themselves uppity. So there are, as I see it, three possible interpretations.

1. “Thinks” doesn’t belong; “uppity” means “uppity.”
In this interpretation, the sentence gets mentally rearranged to become “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re uppity, elitist individuals,” ignoring the word “thinks” altogether. This is the conclusion most people reached, and it’s not unreasonable. Westmoreland clearly forgets how he started the sentence by the time he gets to “individual,” which can easily lead to problems like a lack of subject-verb agreement or unnecessary repetition. However, that “thinks” bothers me. There’s no reason for it to be there. Furthermore, the phrase “thinks they’re uppity” is at the end of the sentence, short, and unitary, so it seems unlikely that that “thinks” is an artefact of some would-be sentence structure that got changed on the fly.

2. “Thinks” belongs; “uppity” means “uppity.”
In this interpretation, the sentence gets mentally rearranged to become “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re members of an elite class that thinks that they’re uppity.” In other words, “Even other elitists think they’re too elitist.” This makes perfect sense grammatically, but zero sense contextually. The Republicans are trying to sell themselves as Joe Six-Packs who wouldn’t have a clue what their cronies upper-class people think, and even if they did they would disagree. There’s no way they’re approvingly citing the opinion of the snooty upper crust.

3. “Thinks” belongs; “uppity” means “superior.”
In this interpretation, the sentence gets mentally rearranged to become “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re members of an elite class [or “they’re elitists”] who think that they’re superior.” This seems likeliest to me. It explains how the “thinks” got there, and also his casual affirmation to a reporter that he used a word with such obviously racist overtones. He was totally convinced, at the moment, that he’d said nothing more controversial than “superior” and didn’t see why he would need to deny it. This kind of substitution happens all the time—The other day I said something about the “Bush pregnancy” and even when someone called me on it it took me a full minute to realize what the problem was.

If that last is what happened, I think there are three possible reasons he got the words confused:

1. He never knew what “uppity” meant.
This is basically his defense. Westmoreland does come off as kind of dense and terrible with language, so if I were going to believe that anyone had no idea what the word meant and had guessed a definition, badly, based on context, it would be Westmoreland. But I don’t buy this at all. The dude’s from Georgia, he’s of an age to have grown up with segregation, he knows what “uppity” means.

2. Freudian slip.
He meant to say “superior” because it’s safe, but wound up saying “uppity” because that’s what he really thinks. Not hard to believe, and I have no doubt that this is his attitude toward the Obamas, but the fact that he casually affirmed to the reporter that he used the word suggests that he didn’t hear the problem, either at the moment or immediately afterward. On purely anecdotal evidence, I think people tend to quickly realize their mistake in the case of Freudian slips.

3. He’s said or heard the word “uppity” so much recently it’s become disassociated from its meaning.
This is the one my money’s on, and this is why I felt it was important to write this post. I believe that in that moment Westmoreland couldn’t properly define “uppity.” The same way I mentally swapped “pregnancy” and “presidency” and couldn’t see the problem, he swapped “uppity” and “superior” or some synonym. This is entirely different from being completely innocent of any inkling that there’s a problem with using the word, as he claims to be. This is a temporary state, and induced by a very specific set of actions.

And that’s why this matters. I think it’s actually more damning if he said “uppity” because he had momentarily ceased to assign it any real meaning. Whether you think he meant to say “uppity” or not, any way you interpret his remarks he’s expressing the same sentiment, it’s just a matter of whether he’s bothering with the pretense of veiling it. In that case, whether he used the word or not is almost irrelevant—his meaning was clear. But if he used the word because that’s what he’s been saying and hearing every day for weeks, that means something. That means that this is considered acceptable discourse in Republican circles. That means that these are the conversations they’re regularly having behind closed doors. That means that open racism is widespread and tolerated among Westmoreland’s associates.

And that’s my point. Westmoreland saying racist things can be dismissed as one bad apple. Westmoreland repeatedly saying racist things to all his compatriots means that a significant contingent of the Republican party* holds ideas about race that date to about 1937. This is not exactly a news flash to anyone paying attention, but still, people need to be called on their racism. And so far the criticism of Westmoreland has let dozens of other people off the hook who at best tacitly condone his attitude and at worst share and propagate it themselves.

—————————-
*NB: Of course this does not mean that Democrats are all peerless allies and pillars of anti-racism activism. But I doubt Westmoreland is talking about how uppity the Democratic candidate is to other Democrats, so his particular remarks don’t indicate anything about them.

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