The Power of Culture

By Thomas Kochman - 10.23.2010

The firing of Juan Williams for comments made on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The O’Reilly Factor, resurrects once again the power of culture to shape perspectives, behavior and events.

For the record, Williams said, “When I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

So what’s cultural about this?

In an earlier blog Ethnicity and the Supreme Court , I wrote about the social and cultural influence of Thurgood Marshall on Supreme Court deliberations as an African American. The case I focused on was McPherson vs. Rankin.

On March 30, 1981, McPherson and some fellow employees heard on an office radio that there had been an attempt to assassinate the President of the United States. Upon hearing that report, McPherson engaged a co-worker, Lawrence Jackson, who was apparently her boyfriend, in a brief conversation, which according to McPherson’s uncontroverted testimony went as follows:

“Q: What did you say?
“A: I said I felt that that would happen sooner or later.
“Q: Okay. And what did Lawrence say?
“A: Lawrence said, yeah, agreeing with me.
“Q: Okay. Now, when you — after Lawrence spoke, then what was your next comment?
“A: Well, we were talking — it’s a wonder why they did that. I felt like it would be a black person that did that, because I feel like most of my kind is on welfare and CETA, and they use Medicaid, and at the time, I was thinking that’s what it was. . . But then after I said that, and then Lawrence said, yeah, he’s cutting back Medicaid and food stamps.  And I said, yeah, welfare and CETA. I said, shoot, if they go for him again, I hope they get him.”

McPherson’s last remark was overheard by another Deputy Constable, who, unbeknownst to McPherson, was in the room at the time.  The remark was reported to Constable Rankin, who summoned McPherson. McPherson readily admitted that she had made the statement, but testified that she told Rankin, upon being asked if she made the statement, ”Yes, but I didn’t mean anything by it.”  After their discussion, Rankin fired McPherson.

Rankin testified that, when he asked McPherson whether she meant the remark, she replied, “I sure do.” In neither of its opinions in this case did the District Court make an explicit finding regarding which version of this conflicting testimony it found credible.  We note that the question whether McPherson “meant” the statement is ambiguous. Assuming that McPherson told Rankin she “meant it,” McPherson might think she had said that she “meant” that she disliked the President and would not mind if he were dead, while Rankin might believe that McPherson “meant” to indicate approval of, or in any event hope for, political assassination.

What’s interesting here is that members of the court themselves could not unequivocally decide among themselves what was meant by McPherson saying “she meant it” when asked that question by Constable Rankin. It was, as they noted, “ambiguous.”  What is culturally relevant is that the ambiguity shown in the above transcript generally corresponds to differences in African American and U.S. mainstream discourse style as I discussed in my chapter “Fighting Words” in Black and White Styles in Conflict. Read more »