“Uppity” is, to put it lightly, an ugly word. It’s got a long and unpleasant history in this country of being racially loaded, of being used to connote the idea of ethnic minorities — especially African Americans — getting above their station and challenging a white hegemony that should remain untouched. Unsurprisingly, its use in politics has been a particularly prominent issue throughout the Obama presidency, with the usual roll-call of right-wing dog whistlers — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity — lining up to use, and then defend, the word in relation to Barack and Michelle Obama. With all this in mind, then, it was startling to see The New Yorker, of all publications, make an ass of itself this week in using the word to describe Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
The word appeared in an essay by John Cassidy on Cruz’s presidential prospects, or lack thereof: “To many Americans, he is the uppity loudmouth who, in the fall of 2013, less than a year into his first term as a senator, helped bring the federal government to a halt.” The word was soon expunged, and Cassidy issued a classic mealy-mouthed “if I gave any offense” pseudo-apology:
In describing Senator Cruz’s aggressive actions during his first year in the Senate, I originally used the word “uppity,” which means, according to Webster’s, “acting as if you are more important than you really are, do not have to do what you are told to do, etc.” However, the word also has some disturbing historical connotations that I overlooked, and in applying it to a Latino politician, I goofed. If I gave any offense, however inadvertently, I am sorry.
Let’s be clear here: if this were a Murdoch paper calling a Latino Democrat “uppity,” there would have been hell to pay, and rightly so. Cassidy is an experienced writer — according to the Washington Post, he’s been on staff at The New Yorker since 1995 — and he should have known better. If he gets away with just apologizing (sort of) and carrying on as before, he’s lucky. I don’t know the guy, obviously, and in the general name of assuming good faith, I’d like to believe this was a genuine mistake rather than any sort of deliberate use of coded language. Even so, it was a pretty egregious mistake, and Cassidy would do well to examine just what sort of unspoken prejudices might lie beneath his choice of words.
It looks like he will get away with it, though. Beyond some gleeful chest-beating and point-scoring at second-tier right-wing blogs — here and here, for instance — the New Yorker article has been met with silence. Cruz’s camp, certainly, seems to want no part of what would appear to be a golden opportunity to score some points against the “liberal media,” which conservatives are generally all too happy to complain about.
It’s interesting to think about why this might be. For a start, there are pretty obvious overtones of the Wi-Fi calling the narrator unreliable if the right is going to start accusing the left of racial bias. That’s not really a defense, though — to say, “Well, they’re worse than us!” is not a particularly effective way of deflecting blame, nor should it be. If anything, an ostensibly liberal publication should be more alert to the importance of language.
The real reason why we haven’t heard much about this from Cruz’s people, I think, is the vexed question of the candidate’s ethnicity and what it means for him to represent a party that is fundamentally hostile to the people to whom he’s meant to appeal. Ever since he appeared in Washington in 2012, Cruz has been talked about as the Republican party’s great non-white hope, a man who could be conservative enough to keep the GOP’s ever more right-wing supporter base happy while also being Latino enough to perhaps sweep up some voters who’d otherwise never dream of voting Republican. Early coverage inevitably focused on his Cuban roots, noting that he was the first Cuban-American to represent Texas in the Senate. The Daily Beast went as far as calling him, albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “the Republican Barack Obama.” Cruz himself was happy to talk about his past, too, in ways that in retrospect seem remarkably candid. (It’s hard to imagine him calling the US-endorsed Batista regime that of a “cruel and oppressive dictator” these days, for instance.)
As his presidential bid has gathered pace, though, Cruz’s Latino roots have been mentioned less and less. His website mentions his mother’s ethnicity first — she’s of Irish and Italian ancestry — and discusses his father’s only in the context of being firmly anti-Castro. (The fact that Rafael Cruz Sr. fought for Castro against the Batista regime is, um, conveniently forgotten — as is the fact that he appears to be as mad as a sack of ferrets.)
If anything, Cruz and his camp seem to be playing down the significance of his roots and going out of their way to emphasize his conservative bona fides. The feeling is mutual, too — Cruz’s hard line on immigration has drawn dismay and condemnation from Latino advocacy groups. A couple of days back, anti-discrimination activists Cesar Vargas and Erika Andiola condemned Cruz in a joint statement:
We reject Ted Cruz, which is sad, because while he is the first Latino to declare his candidacy, he may be the most anti-immigration candidate on stage during … debates [on the issue]. While Ted Cruz has a Latino name and immigration in his past, that’s where the similarities between him and the Latino community end.
One suspects, then, that a race-based hullabaloo is the last thing that the Cruz camp wants at this point. For a Republican candidate, a presidential campaign is all about being slowly airbrushed and buffed into what the GOP thinks a candidate should be. By and large, this involves deftly skipping over anything that diverges from the archetype. (Look at the way Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was whitewashed as his campaign went on, for instance.) With Cruz, the image-makers have a delicate balance to strike — his ethnicity is a demonstration of diversity in a party that represents the interests of entrenched, largely white conservatives, but it’s not something to which any further attention should be drawn.
The reaction to the “uppity” slur, then, rather reflects the sort of contradictory nature of what Cruz represents to the GOP — he’s a man whose ethnicity must simultaneously be embraced and erased. As Vargas and Andiola’s DREAM Coalition website notes, “While some will point to [Cruz’s] Latino heritage as proof of diversity in the Republican Party, that’s pretty cynical, and what is much more significant than his circumstances of birth is the way he has consistently pushed against minority interests.” Until those policies change, the GOP will struggle to appeal to minority voters, regardless of the ethnicity of the candidates they present.