Fifty Three to Fifty Six: Carol Owens and "What's in a name"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Carol Owens and "What's in a name"

What's in a name: A lesson still unlearned

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The, Jul 26, 2001

By EUGENE KANE of the Journal Sentinel staff
Thursday, July 26, 2001

There's this movie Rep. Carol Owens (R-Oshkosh) needs to rent from her local video store as soon as possible.

It's called "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored." It's a 1996 release about a not-so-recent time in American history when blacks were regarded as second-class citizens who didn't deserve a proper name.

Maybe she'll learn something.

Owens, 69, represents the obviously isolated community of Oshkosh, which may or may not explain why she's never seen the movie. And, why she might be the only person left since Archie Bunker who doesn't realize you don't call African-Americans "colored people" anymore.

During a recent radio interview about efforts to draw more women into the Republican party, Owens began to explain why so many Milwaukee-area women are Democrats.

"There's a large colored population in Milwaukee, so we have pretty good colored representation," said Owens, according to the Associated Press.

She went on to offer her observations about demographics in Milwaukee that require a higher demand for social services:

"And I don't want to take this down that road, but they seem to have the most serious problems," said Owens.

"There's many, many families with no head of household. Unwed mothers, you know, the population of unwed mothers is much higher."

Racist or clueless?

After her remarks were publicized, there was an outcry from some Democratic state lawmakers that Owens' words were "blatantly racist."

Actually, it sounds more like she's just clueless. Owens was described by a colleague as "a nice, elderly grandma and doesn't have a mean bone in her body."

It would be good to hear Owens explain herself. I placed a call to her office Wednesday and was told she was in a meeting but would call me back.

By deadline, she had not.

This story received good play in Milwaukee. I'm told it was the topic of conversation on some local talk-radio shows that usually never deal with racial issues -- unless, of course, it's a way to let white callers rail against "political correctness gone amok" and bait blacks who don't want to return to the 1950s.

Truthfully, this name thing gets confusing for some blacks, too. Some black friends of mine don't like "African-American"; others prefer "black" but think it should be uppercase (that's not newspaper style).

And, as many callers pointed out, the largest civil rights organization in the country goes by the name of the NAACP: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A few dense souls tried to make this a "reverse discrimination" issue, proclaiming it hypocritical to blast Owens while the NAACP exists. Ridiculous; the NAACP is probably the single most important organization in the lives of black Americans because of its history of tearing down social barriers over the last 50 years. The group has earned the right to call itself whatever it wants. (Most blacks simply call it "the N-Double A-CP.")

The Owens incident doesn't have much to do with what blacks call themselves. It's more about the backward attitudes and opinions of a state legislator with control over budget strings that impact the city of Milwaukee -- the place where most blacks in the state live.

If Owens truly wanted to weigh in on the problems of poverty in black America and the absence of working fathers in some communities, she should have done her homework.

Because she wasn't up to speed on something as simple as the accepted term for blacks in the year 2001, you have to figure nothing else she had to say on the subject could possibly have much relevance either.

That might seem unfair, but it's like my father used to tell me: Sometimes it's better to remain silent and let folks just think you don't know anything than open your mouth and eliminate all doubt.

Call Eugene Kane at 223-5521 or e-mail him at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Journal editorial is merely political correctness gone awry. Carol Owens' politically antiquated term for Blacks is irrelevant to the social problems effecting all minorities.

Who cares what word she uses for definitional purposes, as long as it is not patently offensive? Are we to ensure that all citizens from pre-"X" generation get on board with accepted terminology? Silly.

Also, it's funny that the Journal article took umbrage with an antiquated racial term rather than refute the characterization of the social problems effecting Blacks. No data to refute the social problems alleged by Ms. Owens? That's okay, I think those of us who do read papers other than the Journal and watch other media see what's happening in minority communities.

12:22 PM  

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