Why a TV Weatherman Turned MLK’s Name Into a Slur

The incident has been misanalyzed and misjudged—and the Rochester broadcaster should be reinstated.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964

Last week, the Rochester TV weatherman Jeremy Kappell accidentally referred to the legendary civil-rights leader as “Martin Luther Coon.” At first, neither he nor those present on the set thought of it as anything but a passing flub, especially given that Kappell immediately corrected himself and said “King.” However, in the wake of a gradual Twitter uproar and other complaints, Kappell was dismissed from his job.

For this man to lose his livelihood for having supposedly committed a racist act is wrong. He is being misanalyzed and misjudged, and should be reinstated immediately.

From the reaction to the incident, one might suppose that Kappell had actually called King a “coon” on the air as a joke, and was then mystified that anyone minded. Cue the battalions ready to remind us of the power of racist language and the hideous history of black people in America. However, all of this, while necessary in other contexts, is hopelessly misapplied here.

Kappell did not “say” the slur at all. Rather, he committed what linguists refer to as a speech error. That’s the jargon we use to say: He made a mistake. And no, the mistake was not in having the gall to call Martin Luther King Jr. a coon on the air, but in producing a vowel he did not intend that accidentally sounded like the slur.

A little more jargon: Kappell experienced a typical perseveration, a sound from earlier in an utterance that holds on into a later part, like a bit of food may get stuck going down for a bit. It happens to all of us—you say black blox instead of black box, or Tom gave the goy a ball instead of Tom gave the boy a ball. With Kappell, the oo sound in Luther held on for a bit and bumped out the ee sound in King.

Some may feel that judgment must be different when it comes to race issues. However, there is no reason that an ordinary linguistic phenomenon like perseveration would somehow fail to occur when someone is referring to black people or other minority groups. Human beings can never have perfect control over their running speech, as we know from the small speech errors that all commentators make all the time.

The question, therefore, is whether we apply witch-hunt tactics to the inevitable speech error slipups that will sometimes occur, even when someone is talking about race issues. In deciding whether that is appropriate, we might consider two things.

First, how likely is it that Kappell, even if he wanted to call King a coon on the air, would actually do so, given the likelihood of at least vigorous censure and possible dismissal from his job? Indeed, old-time, serious bigots did refer to King as “Martin Luther Coon.” But leaving aside whether Kappell, a 40ish weatherman raised in the 1980s, actually knew that, even racists (which Kappell has shown no sign of being) are not necessarily self-destructive morons.

Second, slurs, like all slang, tend to have vogues, and coon’s was long ago. Coon is more known of than used these days. I was born in 1965 and have never heard the word leveled at anyone, and almost always hear of it referred to more as an antiquity than as a current epithet. Another term of art, as it were, is much more prevalent than coon used to be. How likely is it that it was on Kappell’s mind?

I doubt my take can be tarred as unrepresentative of black American opinion on the issue. The Today Show’s weatherman, Al Roker, has suggested the response to Kappell was overblown; King’s daughter Bernice feels the same way. Kappell apologized. He should have, and it should be enough.

In language, there will always be gray zones. The use of the word niggardly has more than once led to firings and protests, and while that is, in my view, as overblown as the response to Kappell, that word’s especial chance similarity to the N-word, and its marginality overall—it is largely a “dictionary word”—suggest that it be quietly retired as unsuitably awkward for modern communication.

But to condemn someone to unemployment for simply blurting out a sequence of sounds that parallels a slur, even in an awkward context, is a kind of performed delicacy. Many cherish the opportunity to remind the public that racism exists, but in a case like this one, in which the relationship to racism is essentially a fortuitous formality, we numb the public to the genuine outrage necessary when real racism rears its ugly head.