A father-son lesson about care with words


Among other things, Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” published in 2000, mocks political correctness in academia.

Its central character, a college professor, is forced to resign after he uses the word “spooks.” In addition to meaning “ghosts,” as the professor intended, the word has a racial connotation for African-Americans. Roth’s irony is that the professor is a light-skinned black man who has passed as white.

In his 2017 book, “Why Write?,” Roth says “The Human Stain” was inspired by an incident some 40 years ago involving Melvin Tumin, a distinguished Princeton sociology professor. Tumin had asked about two students who had not shown up for class, saying, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”

The students were African-Americans. For two years, until he was cleared, Tumin was hounded by Princeton and the New Jersey State Office of Civil Rights for alleged hate speech. The irony is Tumin was known for his writings on desegregation and his efforts to break down social barriers at Princeton’s exclusive eating clubs.

So what does all this have to do with the NYPD?

Tumin’s son Zach is the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives, responsible for the department’s social media. He was hired by then-Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Referring to the “spooks” incident, he said, “This was a terrible turn of events personally for my dad. It was devastating for him.”

“As a tenured faculty member at Princeton, my dad had been a critic of the longstanding selection practices of Princeton eating clubs. My dad was principally responsible for the tenured faculty’s putting its foot down and saying this would not do.”

A couple of years ago, Zack Tumin had his own brush with political correctness after he tweeted that a lack of mental health services was leading to police shootings of mentally disturbed people.

Some on social media regarded his 2015 tweet — “People off their meds r losing it @ wlking into police bullets” — as insensitive. He was accused of oversimplifying the issue and blaming the police-involved shootings on mentally ill people.

Reacting to the complaints, the department said Zumin’s tweet did not reflect NYPD policy.

 

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