NASCAR driver Jeremy Clements has been suspended indefinitely for using a racial slur during an MTV interview on Saturday. The problem is ... NASCAR won’t tell anyone what he said.
MTV News editor Marty Beckerman recently confirmed that the slur referred to black people and started with the letter "n" (here’s a hint: it’s n*gger), but the fact that neither Clements nor the organization will acknowledge this is significant. If NASCAR is as serious about disavowing racist speech as this suspension suggests, it should be more willing to engage in public discussion about it.
The story of how the slur came up is convoluted, but here’s the short version: Beckerman and Clements were wandering the Daytona International Speedway when Beckerman asked Clements what might constitute "Guy Code" for race car drivers (referring to the informal set of hetero "man rules" guiding how we treat women, our male friends, etc.). In response, Clements "blurted out [a phrase that used the ‘N’ word]."
One could have hours of fun speculating about the exact phrase (like I did this morning), but it’s better to know for certain. Without a clear idea of what’s being punished, it’s hard to discern how to approach the situation with the most productive end goal in mind.
This incident has precedents: the Don Imus "nappy headed hoes" debacle stands out, but certainly isn’t unique. And each time this happens, most people get embroiled in the same set of questions, namely, "Is this person a racist?" and "If so, how severely should he or she be punished?"
These questions miss the point. By reducing incidents of discriminatory speech to verbal slip-ups made by individuals who should know better, we relegate them to the arena of moral judgment. What we’re telling ourselves is: "These words are wrong because they offend people, and if you say them we’ll punish you."
Little attempt is made to discuss why these words are viewed as they are, and how saying them links back to a long history of institutional racism that permeates every corner of our social, political, and economic lives. They are separated from their history, and this makes them hard to understand.
When NASCAR officials say they’re punishing Jeremy Clements because what he said was "insensitive" and violates their Code of Conduct, that’s not all they’re saying. They’re also tacitly refusing to delve into why what he said is problematic. This has the added effect of limiting the public conversation about the issue, and continuing to push the idea that these slurs are only "bad" because you’ll get punished for saying them.
Some might think this isn’t NASCAR’s responsibility. It’s a business, after all, and shouldn’t businesses be judged by their business practices alone? The answer, of course, is Hell no!
If a business makes a point of disavowing discriminatory practices, it’s taking on the social responsibility of actually standing up against those practices.
By specifying what Clements said, NASCAR will officially open the issue to public discussion. That’s the only way these speech problems are ever going to be resolved.