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Is everybody going nuts over the issue of race in America?

Now we have the case of a white aide to the new mayor of the nation's capital feeling forced to resign because he used the word "niggardly," and some black official thought it was a racial insult.

That word has nothing to do with race and has no relationship to the word "nigger," which is a racial insult when spoken by a non-black -- even though it is commonly used by black people.

"Niggardly" means "stingy" or "miserly," and the only stretch that I could make to put a racist cast on it would be to say that it describes the appropriations that some states used to allocate to Jim Crow black public schools.

So how in the name of heaven does D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams accept a valued white aide's resignation simply because some black person's vocabulary is so lacking that he or she does not know that "niggardly" is no racial insult?

Primarily because our new mayor, on whom we place our hopes for greater home rule of a revitalized city after what seems a tragic lifetime of Marion Barry Jr., is already bedeviled by concerns about who is black, who is white, or whatever. Williams says that he is "troubled by recent news stories concerning race questions about whether I'm black enough or have too many advisers who are not."

On Jan. 17, The Washington Post ran an outrageously stupid opinion-page article about whether Williams is "black enough" to lead this largely black city. I say "stupid" because, first of all, there is no accepted scale on which to measure a black man's "blackness." That article seemed to flow out of a nitwit notion that Williams' first duty is to ensure that Washington becomes a "black" city in which African-Americans hold all meaningful power and enjoy all meaningful benefits.

I know that that idea represents a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that in almost all of America, someone is now declaring that this is a "white man's country" and that campaigns are under way to strip blacks of good jobs, educational opportunities and political power. But it is still a terrible idea to foist upon Williams, because it is morally wrong and patently unworkable.

Williams' success or failure will depend not only on the concern he shows and the work he does for the district's blacks, whether in poor or affluent neighborhoods. It also will depend on how well he brings into economic partnership the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland so all can enjoy a greater prosperity. It will depend on how effectively he uses the brainpower and economic resources of the many thousands of non-whites who also live here. It will depend on how effectively he convinces Congress that district residents don't need members of that body acting as plantation masters.

David Howard, the white head of his Office of Public Advocate, erred in timidly resigning when someone complained about his use of the word "niggardly." A man who effectively coordinated some 1,600 volunteers of all races in Williams' mayoral campaign should never have succumbed so quickly to ignorance. But the greatest blame lies on Williams, who should have cited a dictionary rather than swallow the first complaint that Howard had made an "inappropriate racial comment."

Add this absurdity to other recent cases, such as the good white teacher being driven off for reading to her students a black woman's fine little book about "Nappy Hair" and you are bound to wonder if mindless racial passions are driving people crazy.

Mayor Williams can quickly right a wrong in the case of the young man who said he was niggardly in spending the public's money, a trait that is eminently desirable in most of this city's offices. Williams can withdraw his acceptance of Howard's resignation as brave reaffirmation of his pledge to be the mayor of all the people.

North America Syndicate

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