A lot of people have no idea that the word "uppity," when applied to black people, has racist connotations, but it's getting harder and harder to understand how public figures, in particular, are able to maintain their ignorance of the term's history. President Obama has been a well-known public figure for several years and his conservative critics, in particular, keep making the "uppity" mistake. This week it's Rush Limbaugh, who said Michelle Obama was booed at a weekend Nascar race because she showed "uppity-ism," as well as the conservative site Newsbusters, which is just shocked that anyone might call that comment racially problematic. Glenn Beck, too, is defending Limbaugh's analysis, saying it's just a synonym for snobby. It's hard to explain how they've managed to avoid finding out about "uppity" secret past.
Limbaugh said Monday "Nascar people... are mature, tolerant people who fully understand when they’re being insulted and condescended to," Limbaugh said, then listed Obama's transgressions such as taking expensive vacations and saying exercise is good. He continued, "They understand it is a little bit of uppity-ism." Glenn Beck defended the comment, saying on Imus' radio show, "Uppity? You don't think she's a little snotty? Really? Really? Miss Arugula? Come on!" (Arugula is a type of lettuce that is offensive to some conservatives.) "I'm not going to apologize for saying the woman who says 'I'd like a good steak and arugula once in a while'... Please. We're living in a country where you can't say that's a little uppity?"
Beck seemed unaware "uppity" was a term racist southerners used for black people who didn't know their place. In fairness, a lot of people don't know for sure whether "uppity" is racist. Various forms of the question "Is uppity racist?" is a very popular on Yahoo Answers. But a little more digging could help these guys out. The most liked and most disliked definition at Urban Dictionary notes that "uppity" is often followed by the n-word. Maybe these media guys don't know how to Google. Even so, they've had a lot of practice with uppity in recent years.
In 2008, Rep. Lynn Westmorland claimed he didn't know "uppity" had racial connotations when he used the term to describe then-Sen. Barack Obama. This is especially curious because Westmorland is from Georgia. In 2010, Harvard professor Charles Ogletree said Sarah Palin's habit of deriding Obama as a "professor" was code for "uppity." Limbaugh responded by saying the term was racist when applied to Clarence Thomas, but true when applied to Obama: "Obama is uppity, but not as a black. He is an elitist. He does think he’s smarter and better than everybody else. That’s what he was taught. He’s a Harvard man." (Thomas received his law degree, by contrast, from plebian institution Yale.)
But maybe that practice is starting to sink in. While Newsbusters' Brent Baker was appalled that ABC News had "elevated" the "left-wing hit," he didn't quite go so far as to explicitly say the comment wasn't racist. That's progress.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.