What is the world coming to?

I used to think a guy could get away with making fun of white folks. For years now, laughing at the paler race has been considered good, clean fun — enjoyment for the whole family.

Not anymore, as Sen. Robert Byrd just found out — the hard way. Surprising I think to almost everyone in modern America, it turns out that even mocking white people is beyond the pale these days.

Interviewed for a Friday, March 2, taping of “Fox News Sunday,” the crusty old Democrat from the West Virginy hills was asked about the present state of race relations. Given that Byrd is 83 years old, it’s no surprise that he answered by saying, “much, much better than they’ve ever been in my lifetime. … I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us.”

Considering that whites and blacks can stand side by side in the same public bathrooms and pee on equal terms these days, I think Byrd may be on to something.

But how far behind us is the question. For some folks, Byrd’s mouth quickly betrayed the racial bogeyman nipping at our 21st century heels. “I think we try to have good will,” said the senator. “My old mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.'”

So far, so good. People on the Byrd press team are, no doubt, cheering right about here. He’s got the anti-hate message in there with a little serving of pro-mom on the side. Good, good.

But, just when you think Byrd’s oratory will soar, the bottom falls out of his nest: “There are white niggers,” he flubbed it. “I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time. …”

Somebody must have neglected to tell the senator no tipping before taping. Hitting the bottle is outs at the outset of interviews. But Byrd didn’t slur or stagger. In fact he was resolute about it: “I’m going to use that word.” He must have been sober.

Still, white niggers? Call the FCC. I know this is a free country, but he can’t say that on television, can he?

Apparently not in good conscience (or, more likely, good poll numbers).

No doubt fearing a bone-cracking backlash of hostile public opinion, the same day the show aired, Byrd’s office issued an apology: “The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today’s society. As for my language, I had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone of another race.”

Don’t lose sight of the red herring here. Another race? Last I checked, Byrd was as white as a Klansman, and he was ridiculing gringos, not blacks. Maybe he was worried that people would misread his expression as a slam against African Americans, but if folks can’t figure out that “white nigger” in modern parlance equates to “white trash” and “redneck,” they probably need a trip back to second grade.

The real fear must have been in alarming whites.

Pity. I guess with all our PC indoctrination and sensitivity training, whites can’t hack it anymore. It used to be that the pasty-faced Caucasoid was the last of the thickskinners. People had political and social dispensation in popping redneck jokes, laughing at trailer parks and the Coors-huffing, cousin-lovin’, blue-collar types who inhabit them. And we palefaces endured it all.

No big deal.

And, go on, admit it: Those jokes were funny. You got to be able to laugh at yourself, right?

Not any more. As Jim Goad says in his 1997 book, “The Redneck Manifesto,” “White niggers have feelings, too.” Better ban reruns of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I’m deleting the memory banks that include any reference to Li’l Abner. Who’s that, Archie Bunker? Never heard of him.

We’re so sensitive to race these days, you can’t even use appropriate English without being branded a racist. One false verb, and those around you can break out in a rash.

Remember the case of David Howard? As the head of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Public Advocate, Howard was forced to resign in January 1999 because he used naughty language in an office meeting. Mind you the vocab flexed by Howard was not the type learned while hanging out with friends in the high-school gym room, at a local bar, or scribbled in public bathroom stalls. No, Howard’s transgression was more along the lines of talking like Bill Buckley.

While discussing his management of emergency funds, Howard stated that he was a bit “niggardly,” which of course means “tight,” or “miserly.” You know, like a Scotsman.

People surely didn’t take it that way, however. Some thought the term was racist; others dubbed it, “virtual racism.” Virtual because it sounds like a slur, even though the term has nothing to do with the slur.

Niggard, for the record, is a Middle English word with an Old Norse grandparent. As I understand the etymology, the Norse word is hnoggr, coming into English as the root nig, meaning “stingy” or “overly frugal.” The ard is tacked on in the same fashion that it is in the word “drunkard.”

By this simple understanding, Uncle Remus is not a niggard — Uncle Scrooge is. And only someone poorly educated would be offended at the use of the expression. A well-educated person would know the meaning of the word, and a decently educated person would hold judgment if he didn’t.

Instead, the idiots came out of the woodwork. The blithering knuckleheads, shoes slipping on their own drool, reacted with lightning-fast reflex stupidity. Upon hearing the word, the lingo nazis demanded Howard have his neck violently stretched from the goody-two-shoes gallows.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams said though “he didn’t say anything that was in itself racist,” Howard exercised poor judgment in using the word. How’s that for an example to the youth of America; don’t study to expand your vocabulary — you might offend someone. Thus, only upon pain of death should you refer to a shovel as a “spade,” a chip or crack in your coffee mug as a “chink,” or gunk in your eyeglasses as “gook.”

Likewise, if you have to smoke, make sure they’re cigarettes, not “fags,” and for heaven’s sake, if you plan on taking advantage of someone at the office today, don’t “gyp” them; swindle them instead.

Someone with higher hopes might have expected humanity to toughen up a bit in the new millennium. A truly tolerant people can hack stuff that rubs us the wrong way — even some geriatric senator calling people “white niggers.” That’s a long way from the concentration camps and ovens, folks. Lighten up.

Instead, we all have skin as thick as newborn mice. One pinprick of a word, and we’re off to the Anti-Defamation League looking for a piece of paper to sign so we can sue the pants off the verbal perpetrator who would dare offend us, knowingly or otherwise.

It’s both amazing and ironic that the rah-rah diversity groupies have engendered a spirit of such hostility toward anything that doesn’t fit their rulebook of approved behavior, mannerisms and speech. They are lifestyle fascists, like little Hitlers dictating how to live, act and talk. But don’t say it to their faces; they might have you dragged out back and beaten.

Unless you’re in the club, they don’t care much about your feelings.

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