Officials stumble over their words

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The Independent Online
IN THE racially charged atmosphere of the United States, language can sometimes be a minefield. So David Howard, a local government official in Washington, might have chosen his words a little more carefully when he referred to his shortage of cash. He would have to be "niggardly", he said. The officials he was addressing were black, and they were outraged. Mr Howard resigned, and the affair has now become a cause celebre in this sharply divided city.

Niggardly, of course, has nothing to do with a crude racial epithet. It means miserly or mean.

Mr Howard says he is a victim of a sophisticated vocabulary. His opponents say that he used the "n" word and is trying to get away with it. The mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams, accepted his resignation but has launched an inquiry.

Mr Williams was elected as a moderate black mayor last year and has been attacked for not being "black enough".

Mr Williams said, rather cautiously, that in his view Mr Howard had been "caught smoking in a refinery". But Mr Howard is gay, one of the first officials in high office to be publicly so. Now the gay community (black and white) is accusing Mr Williams of homophobia.