Of Racist Floods and Chicoms

Back in 1994, I heard a flood called racist. Tropical Storm Alberto, coming out of the Gulf, parked on the Alabama-Georgia line and rained. And rained. And rained. It rained so much that cities in Georgia and Alabama flooded. In one instance, a radio station built in the middle of a cornfield near Americus, Georgia, had water to the windowsills.

In Georgia, flooding extended as far east as the Ocmulgee River, and Saturday of that week I came down to help friends move their things to high ground. We finished by lunch, and ate as the neighbors’ TV was tuned to an Albany station. A meteorologist was on the air, telling viewers that the dam at Lake Blackshear had washed out, but it didn’t matter because the water was almost as high downstream as it was upstream. This was followed by aerial video of fine houses flooded by the Flint River. As bad as flooding was on the Ocmulgee, the Flint, Chattahoochee, and rivers in Eastern Alabama had it worse.

It was national news, and pretty much everyone knew about the incredible scope of the flooding. I remember a political cartoon of Haitian Boat People talking to an old man wading near Macon, Georgia, and the woman says to the man “I told you to ask for directions in Albany.”

It wasn’t surprising when Jessie Jackson paid a trip to Albany to inspect the damage. It was surprising when he claimed the flooding was racially motivated. Jackson, apparently unaware of footage of flooded mini-mansions, had some claptrap about flood gates turned to flood black communities. Remember, this was a flood where the water was so high it didn’t matter if a dam on a major lake washed away. The footage I saw out of Albany had people with a “What?” expression and Jackson didn’t gain much traction.

Being cynical, I suspect the point was to regain some of his lost following. Even in 1994, Jackson had come down quite a bit from his peak in the early 1980s, when he ran for nomination on the Democrat presidential ticket and allegedly called New York City “Hymietown.” The problem was, calling a flood racist strained all sorts of credibility. For all I know, Mr. Jackson might have really thought the flood was racist. Regardless, when I hear someone accused of being racist, I think of 1994 and Mr. Jackson proclaiming that the flooding was racially motivated.

Such as when someone thought it was racist when author Sarah Hoyt used the term Chicom. I did like most of the people of Albany did 1994 and went “What?” Mrs. Hoyt’s experience with the term Chicom, a portmanteau of Chinese Communist, is similar to my own, except we considered it a highfalutin term for Red Chinese, and used it to differentiate from the Chinese Nationalists of the Republic of China, the last fragment of which is Taiwan. That was before Nixon went to China and before the Republic of China was unseated at the UN in favor of the People’s Republic of China. In Mrs. Hoyt’s case, it was used to differentiate Russian Communists (we called them Bolsheviks or just Soviets) from Chinese Communists. It’s strictly a political term.

Since there was – and is – a difference, and Maoism is held by various communist groups worldwide, applying the term Chicom when socialist motivations are suspect is certainly reasonable. The spread of the Chicom brand of communism is why, in Victor Vashi’s Red Primer for Children and Diplomats, he drew the Soviet dream of a Communist world disturbed by Chinese looking back at them. Chicom is a precise political term, just as the word racist has a precise definition.

You really have to wonder if the person making the charge knows what both words mean. If you know that Chicom means Chinese Communist, which should be well within the grasp of those fluent in English, and you know what racist means, it’s perfectly obvious that Chicom is no more racist than a flooding river. But if someone doesn’t know what Chicom means and/or don’t know what racist means, calling it racist is just slinging their own slur at their opponents, like an angry preschooler calling someone a bad name without comprehending what it means.

When it’s pointed out that Chicom is a political term and it’s confirmed (easy to do with a browser and search engine), someone claiming it’s racist has two options: One is to do a mea culpea and admit the mistake and come off looking ignorant, or double-down and come off looking stupid. The former is painful to the pride but better, because ignorance is correctable and admitting error shows humility. As someone who’s eaten his share of crow, it’s not pleasant, but it’s better in the long run. Half measures don’t work well, either (been there; done that), even though it’s less damaging to your pride.

Oh, if they do the latter they’ll likely find a few fellow travelers, just as Mr. Jackson was able to find a few supporters (typically far from Albany) of his claim. But for most folks fluent in English, it’ll come across as stupid, just as we who saw the flood of 1994 knew that Mr. Jackson’s charge didn’t hold water.

Now, non-communists, who know something about Chicoms, would likely to be offended. If you don’t know why, just ask someone who had to flee during the Chinese revolution, or who was at the Frozen Chosin, or look into the Cultural Revolution and a thing called Tienanmen Square. Other communists could take exception as well. A Trotskyist might regard it like a Yale alumni called a Harvard man. A Chicom wouldn’t be offended, unless they didn’t want folks to know they were Maoists. Which brings up something interesting: In calling it a racist slur, the offended have overlooked the communist aspect, the very thing at the heart of the term. Interesting, that.

Ah, well. Claiming Chicom is racist doesn’t make it so, anymore than calling a flood racist made it a member of the Klan. Now, if the offended, for some ungodly reason, want to find racial slurs, they should be able to do so with a web browser and a search engine.

Like they could have checked the definition of Chicom in the first place – if they didn’t know what it meant.