When Republican Assemblyman William J. (Pete) Knight distributed a poem last week that described illegal immigrants as baby-breeding freeloaders bent on supplanting the "white man race," the former Air Force test pilot caught flak from outraged Latino legislators and others.
Knight later apologized. He told a reporter he thought the poem was "clever" and "funny," and said the poem had been misunderstood.
"I am not a racist by any stretch of the imagination," Knight insisted. "I didn't mean to offend anyone."
This week at the University of Pennsylvania five black sorority sisters who were called "water buffalo" by a white freshman dropped their racial harassment complaint, charging the press and the school with having "failed us miserably."
Eden Jacobowitz, the student, had denounced the charges as outrageous, explaining that the term "popped into (his) head" because the women were "stomping and making a 'woo, woo' noise" while he was trying to study.
"This had nothing to do with their skin," he said. "It had to do with the noise they were making."
The people making these remarks deny they are racists. Certainly they are not spouting the kind of irrational hatred associated with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation.
Yet many blacks and Latinos would see in these comments a common thread of racism not far removed from the Klan's vitriol.
It is a puzzle in need of an answer.
How is it that people who pride themselves on being enlightened casually can make remarks that others find offensive? It is a phenomenon that crosses racial and ethnic boundaries.
"Subconsciously, we all do it," says Jose, a Hancock Park barber who has reprimanded his teen-age son for using a derogatory term for blacks, although the boy did not realize it was offensive. The father asked that his last name not be used.
"No matter what, you try not to say it and it happens," Jose says. "Then you try to get out of it by saying something like, 'But some of my best friends are black or Latino.' "
According to Yolanda Harper, a University of Tulsa professor who studies multicultural psychology, there is a difference between what has been called "dominative racism," in which members of minority groups are the target of open hatred and discrimination, and "aversive racism," which is more subtle and much more widespread.
"In aversive racism you have people who say, 'I'm not prejudiced,' but basically on an unconscious level they have very negative opinions about culturally diverse people," Harper says. They tend to see the differences that appear in other cultures as "deficiencies" in need of correction.
Such people tend to resist acknowledging that their comments may be offensive to others, she says.
"If you've defined yourself as being very liberal, then you have a lot of defenses around preserving that image," she says.
English is rife with expressions that disparage members of other racial or ethnic groups.
When we speak of welshing on a deal, jewing down or gypping someone, or riding in a paddy wagon, we're using terms that are likely to give offense.
According to Harper, people who use such terms without considering their potential to hurt have made a decision to remain unconscious.
"Those that have power have the privilege of not having to be aware," she says. "Awareness is a choice for people who are in power."
Linguist Selase Williams, who has studied communication among African-Americans as well as word use abroad, says that language in any society is rooted in its culture.
"Language simply reflects the biases and values of a culture," says Williams, chairman of the Pan-African studies department at California State University, Northridge.
In the United States, however, offensive language has been applied disproportionately to people of color, he says.
"We blacklist people," Williams says. "There is the black sheep of the family. We say, 'Don't get behind the eight ball.' "
Many people use those terms without reservation, he says.
"People don't realize the impact this has," Williams says. "Because there is already a negative put on blackness and darker people, it just makes it worse."
Yet, in some cases, the use of epithets might be entirely innocent, according to Brian Mullen, a Syracuse, N.Y. psychologist, who says language development begins in the home.
"When a kid says, 'The toy was a gyp,' there is no ethnic base to the phrase," Mullen says. "They are using a word they simply don't understand. It's just like them sneaking a peek at an R-rated movie on cable. They might go off and repeat a four-letter profanity they heard in the movie. In this case, the kid is unconsciously swearing. The kid doesn't know what it means."
It also must be acknowledged that all communication contains an element of subjectivity. For example, one person might read a racist meaning into a comment while others would not.