Lafayette attorney Warren Perrin, former president and longtime board member of the Council on the Development of French in Louisiana and a well-known activist who famously sought (and more or less received) an apology from Queen Elizabeth II for the 18th century expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia, has taken a Texas lawmaker to task over his use of the slur “coonass” during a legislative hearing on caring for the tens of the thousands of immigrant children amassing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the second highest ranking member of the Texas House, was discussing the difficulty of educating the border kids with David Anderson, an attorney for the Texas Education Agency, when he made an analogy to Hurricane Katrina evacuees who sought refuge in the Lone Star State following the 2005 calamity. From the Houston Chronicle:
“I want to be clear — a Katrina child is far different,” Bonnen said. “We can make jokes and pick on Louisiana and it’s fun and all that, but it’s a hell of a lot different bringing a kid over from Louisiana than a child who’s just made a treacherous journey.”
“The Louisiana government actually gave us their records,” Anderson said. “It was very easy.”
“Correct. There’s a significant difference,” Bonnen said, before adding, “We had to have a teacher who could do coonass in English, but here we have to do Spanish and English, maybe, and there’s a higher marker.”
It’s unclear how Perrin caught wind of the slur — Google alert for “coonass”? — but he shared with The IND an email he fired off to Bonnen — a missive to which Bonnen’s office replied with a boilerplate “thanks for writing” response:
Dear Rep. Bonnen:
With regard to your use of the epithet “coonass,” we submit to you the following:
1. History of Acadians
Early in the seventeenth century, France founded a colony in North America called Acadie. While the colonists, called Acadians, prospered and developed their own culture on the fertile marshlands for over one hundred and fifty years, France and Britain vied for control of the region. Britain won sovereignty over Acadie; it was renamed Nova Scotia in 1713. Four decades later, in 1755, British officials deported the Acadians. France and England settled the war in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. However, the Acadians were prohibited from returning to their lands; their exile was continued in effect.
After being exiled, imprisoned and scattered about, some Acadian refugees led by Beausoleil Broussard, found refuge in south Louisiana. As their settlements spread across bayous and prairies, their English speaking neighbors shortened the French term “Acadien” to “Cadien” then to the present-day “Cajun,” which is an English word.
The most insulting and derogatory term levied against Acadians is the term “coonass.” The use of this offensive term re-affirms negative stereotypes and its vestiges of pre-civil rights era racial discrimination. This insulting slang was never a proud or complimentary term affixed to the Acadian people; we will not tolerate the use of this racial slur which has pejorative connotations.
3. Slang’s Genesis
According to James H. Domengeaux, author of an article entitled “Native Born Acadians and the Equality Ideal” published in the Louisiana Law Review, Volume 46 No. 6, July 1986, during World War II, the French soldier, possibly threatened by his “long lost cousin”, referred to the French-speaking American soldiers as conasse. The non-French-speaking American soldier, either out of jealousy, or invidious jest, began to harass the Louisiana soldier by calling him “coonass” as a take-off on the word conasse used by the French forces. The French noun conasse is defined as: “a stupid woman or man; used specifically for a bungling prostitute (prostitute jargon circa 1810-35); to a prostitute without a health card (1910).”
Although the slang’s genesis is unknown, the word “coonass” has existed since at least the early 1940’s, according to historian Dr. Shane K. Bernard. Not until the rise of a national ethnic pride and empowerment movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, did the Cajun people, led by former U.S. Congressman James Domengeaux, the first president of CODOFIL, finally speak out against the use of this ethnic slur. Since then, many Cajuns have been successful in discouraging the term’s use, both by non-Cajuns and fellow Cajuns alike.
Domengeaux, for instance, assisted Calvin J. Roach, a Cajun from Acadia Parish, Louisiana, to file suit against a former employer after being terminated allegedly for protesting his superiors’ use of the pejorative “coonass.” Known as Roach v. Dresser Industrial Valve and Instrument Division (1980), the case resulted in federal judge Edwin Hunter, Sr. declaring Cajuns a bona fide minority group protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and thus protection from ethnic slurs like “coonass.”
Similarly, the term “coonass” may be a racially derogatory term if directed to, or perceived to be referring to, one of African-American descent. Example: In the case of Sherry S. Reid v. Hazel O’Leary, Secretary, U. S. Department of Energy, Civil Action Number: 96-0401-GK, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the Plaintiff, Chief of the Nuclear and Fossil Branch at the U. S. Dept. of Energy, filed a civil action on March 1, 1996 pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 2000 et seq. and 1981 (a), alleging that she had been the victim of racial discrimination in the work place because she was presented with a certificate entitled “Temporary Coonass Certificate.” In support of her claim for damages, the Plaintiff, an African-American, submitted the testimony of Dr. John Staczek, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University, who opined that the term “coonass” is a racially offensive and derogatory term (His sources: The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1991, page 213 and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition, 1992, page 411 et al). Further, the term “coon” is considered to be a racial slur against African-Americans. In Ragged But Right by Glenn Abbott and Doug Roth (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), the authors state that African-American popular music from 1895 to 1910 was dominated by ragtime-driven “coon songs.” Therein is found a quote from the Indianapolis Freeman in 1909, to wit: “Coon songs after the great damage they have done to the American colored man, are now dying out... Certain slang and nicknames should be abolished, even if it cost bloodshed - the same as it did to abolish slavery.” On March 27, 2006, a radio station apologized to Secretary of State Condolisa Rice who was referred to as a “big coon.” Similarly, bougalie was a pejorative used to describe Cajuns, but today its usage is rare. On June 18, 2014 the U. S. Patent Office ruled that the Washington Redskins’ name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and cancelled its trademark.
Dr. Shane K. Bernard wrote an article, “More on That Word “Coonass”: A Labor Dispute Trial Documents Its Use in 1940” http://bayoutechedispatches.blogspot.com/2012/03/more-on-that-word-coonass-labor-dispute.html. In that case, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Vincent (who was called a “coonass” and fired) and restored him to his job.
Further, Dr. Barry Ancelet, Head of the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has stated: “...I abhor the use of the term ‘coonass’.... I have tried for many years to discourage its use, both by outsiders and insiders as well.”
Dr. Jim Dorman explains in his book, The People Called Cajuns: An Introduction to an Ethnoshistory (Lafayette: UL Lafayette Center for Louisiana Studies, 1983; page 87):
“The term ‘coonass,’ originally a term of ethnic derision introduced by ‘outsiders’ to apply to Cajuns, is of uncertain linguistic origin. It may have been a racial allusion suggesting a Cajun-black genetic mixture. But it has come to be used by participants in the Cajun ethnic revival efforts (however informal) as a term of pungent if crude approbation and self-identification.”
The racial slur “coonass” does not have a proud genesis and it is not indicative of a proud people.
4. Equality Ideal
First, the Acadians are entitled to “national origin” protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; second, Section 1981, in view of its historical setting, affords protection to Acadians against invidious class-based discrimination; third, the “equal protection” clause was adopted to cure the evils of intentional discrimination against people on the basis of certain “suspect” classifications such as “race” and “national origin”; and, finally, under the Louisiana Constitution of 1974, Acadians were afforded every opportunity to fully develop their cultural heritage and are entitled to protection from “arbitrary and capricious classifications.” (See: “Native Born Acadians and the Equality Ideal” La. Law Review, Vol. 46, No. 6, p. 1151).
5. Acadian Pride
During the post-World War II era, many Acadians experienced occupational and geographic mobility; these opportunities afforded Acadians the opportunity to fully integrate into the American socio-economic pattern. In 1968, the Council for the Development for French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was created under the leadership of James Domengeaux. Currently, the pride in the Acadian culture is soaring; the future of the Acadian people is sound. One can feel this “born again” pride by observing and conversing with Acadians in the many South Louisiana cities and villages.
6. Senate Resolution
In 1981, by Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 170, the Louisiana Legislature condemned the use of the word “coonass.” The legislative body traced the slur’s infamous history and condemned the sale of any items containing the word.
7. Other Resolutions
On February 28, 2007, the City Council of New York declared the n-word off limits to all races in a resolution prompted by the increasingly casual use of the slur in hip-hop music, comedy and street slang. Councilman Leroy Comrie said “people are denigrating themselves by using the word and disrespecting their history.” The resolution was unanimously adopted by leaders of the nations largest city as an example to discourage the use of pejorative slang.
8. Application to the Internet
Two recent legal developments send a clear message that internet expression has its limits and may not be used as a medium for “hate speech:” Firstly, in February, 1999, a Portland civil jury returned a $107 million verdict against the operators of an Internet site, Nuremberg Files, finding that the site illegally incited hatred and violence. Secondly, the U.S. Congress passed the Child On-line Protection Act, an attempt at banning indecent and racially pejorative speech in cyberspace.
9. United States Supreme Court Decision
Rejecting a free-speech appeal from the nation’s second-largest car rental company, on May 22, 2000, the United States Supreme Court refused to let an Avis employee use ethnic epithets at his job. In Avis v. Aguilar, Docket Number 99-781 (United States Supreme Court, 2000) the justices left intact a ruling in which the California Supreme Court said an Avis manager who harassed co-workers with bigoted words could be ordered to stop using such language at work in the future. Further, Avis was ordered to pay $135,000 to each Hispanic employee who had been victimized by the pejorative term which the Court said was not “constitutionally protected by fundamental free-speech guarantees under the Constitution.”
10. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
On April 13, 2001, the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended an end to Indian team names and mascots at non-Indian schools and universities. The group said Indian names in mascots could be viewed as “disrespectful and offensive” to Indian groups and could create “a racially hostile educational environment” that may be intimidating to Indian students. The Commission also said the names may violate anti-discrimination laws. As a result of the ruling, many schools voluntarily agreed to stop using an Indian mascot and logo for its sports teams. Recently, the N.C.A.A. prohibited the use of offensive mascots in post-season tournaments.
The pride and morale of all ethnic groups is seriously wounded when demeaning and/or pejorative reference is made to any group. Some recent examples: “Cajun Taliban” (April 8, 2002, Roger McQuinty, ABC News Radio), “Coonass” (March 10, 2003, CNN’s “CrossFire” used in reference to James Carville), “Cajun Cutter”(April 2003 used by Times of Acadiana’s columnist to refer to the Louisiana serial killer), “Cajun Spammer” ( May 28, 2003, Washington Post), “Cajuns as racial group” (June 25, 2003, Diane Sawyer and Patricia Cromwell, ABC News “Primetime”), unfairly stereotyping people (Red Water, 2003), “Cajuns Pour Hot Sauce on Trashman” (September 11, 2003 The Daily Cougar, University of Houston) “Cajuns Have Reputation Of Being Slightly Unbalanced” (June 13, 1997, The Dallas Morning News), “Love thy neighbor, hate thy inbred Cajun” (November 20, 2003, Daily Mississippian), “Be What You Is...I Are Cajun” (January 10, 2004, www.certifiedcajun.com), “It’s Best Not To Make Waves In The Marsh” (January 18, 2004, The Clarion-Ledger), “Experiencing True Cajun History at Vermilionville” (January 28, 2004, The Vermilion),NBC TV Show “Las Vegas” for its pejorative portrayal of Cajuns, “Cajun-Style” primary election (March, 2004 Editorial in the Seattle-Times), “Cajun tactics” (January 6, 2005, Rush Limbaugh, The Rush Limbaugh Show) “Rear Admiral James Godwin, III, Director of Navy-Marine Corp. Intranet, apologized for using the word ‘coonass’ in a conference call with employees of the University of New Orleans [NMCI Director apologizes for use of ethnic term by Dawn S. Onley and Patience Wait, GNC Staff] http://appserv.gcn.com/cgi-bin/udt/im.display.printable?client.id=gcndaily2&story.id=35749. 05/06/05,” “CODOFIL Chief Demands Apology for Cajun Insult” (June 8, 2005, The Advocate), opposed adoption of the official “Cajun” poem of Louisiana, (Sunday Advertiser, May 28, 2006), “Saban explains his use of Cajun slur” (February 1, 2007, The Advertiser), Scott Mayor condemns “Koonass Kajun Krapper” for Mardi Gras parade, March 9, 2007, “Celebrate Earth Day with a green book,” The Advertiser, April 22, 2007, Cheramie Sonnier’s review of Donald Link’s cookbook condemns use of “coonass” (“‘Real Cajun’ cookbook offers terrific collection of recipes,” Morning Advocate, May 21, 2009), The Walt Disney Company’s depiction of Cajuns in the move “The Princess and The Frog” and “‘Princes and the Frog’ firefly character creates wrong kind of buzz,” (Times Picayune, July 25, 2009), and Moon Griffon apologizes for using pejorative “coonass.” July 7, 2010, Michael Krauss, Forbes Magazine (May 22, 2014), Mathew Stevens, The Commercial Dispatch, June 7, 2014.
During the 2013 Oscars, the Twitter account for the satirical news site The Onion called Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old nominee for Best Actress, a c**t. This is what was written as a response by Wired editor Laura Hudson, and is also germane to the use of the word “coonass”:
“Your intentions are not more important than the effect they have. Not meaning to cause harm is an explanation, not an excuse. And if this unfortunate incident offers us anything, it’s a teachable moment about the best way to respond when we screw up and say things that are sexist/racist/homophobic/insensitive without understanding their impact. One common – and immensely dickish – response is that it’s “not a big deal,” and that it’s the responsibility of person who has been mistreated or marginalized to remove themselves and stop complaining about it. Which is an attempt not only to silence them and sanction spaces as overtly hostile to them, but also essentially a reenactment of that scene from The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa start walking toward each other while punching and kicking the air wildly, saying ‘if you get hit, it’s your own fault!’”
Therefore, we respectfully request that you refrain from engaging in the use and promotion of this slang. To continue to do so would be a violation of applicable federal and state laws and a personal affront to many people of Louisiana.
If you do not agree to cease in the promotion of the pejorative, it may be necessary for us to take legal action which may include filing a claim with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Hoping the enclosed information will be enlightening to you, I remain,
WARREN A. PERRIN
Member of the board CODOFIL