Editor’s Note: Steve A. Holmes is executive director of Standards & Practices at CNN and formerly covered race and demographics for The New York Times. The opinions expressed are his. This is an updated version of an article first published in March 2015.
Warning: This article contains offensive language.
There’s that word again, nigger, muscling its way into the public square, prompting sharp intakes of breath, embarrassed silences, euphemisms and lots and lots of heated discussion. This time, the speaker was John Schnatter, founder and public face of the Papa John’s pizza chain, who used it last week in a conference call with the company’s marketing firm.
“Colonel Sanders called blacks niggers,” Schnatter said on the call evoking another well-known marketing figure for a rival fast-food chain to defend himself against charges of racism.
Schnatter later apologized, but was forced to resign as head of the company.
But, whether followed by expressions of contrition or sanitized by the euphemism “the n-word,” its use by others, including the former President of the United States, keeps forcing all of us to deal with that hateful (to some), endearing (to some) and confusing (to many) word.
“Racism, we are not cured of it,” President Barack Obama said in an interview in 2015 for the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron.”
“And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
Whether or not his point is valid, there are, no doubt, millions of people saying, why did he have to use that word? Why does anyone have to use it anymore? Why won’t it just go away?
Like those other words did.
Like the one in the headline Anthony Federico wrote in 2012, the one that cost him his job at ESPN.
Jeremy Lin, at the time a Chinese-American point guard for the New York Knicks, had been lighting up NBA scoreboards with his play and generating a wave of rapturous excitement among fans. Finally, the player had an error-filled game, prompting Federico, 28 at the time, to note Lin’s fall from grace with the headline, “Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-stopping Loss to Hornets.”
The outcry over what many considered a racist headline was immediate. ESPN promptly fired Federico, who apologized and defended himself by saying that he had used the term in hundreds of headlines and that he had connected it in his mind to Lin’s play, not his race. “This had nothing to do with me being cute or punny,” he said.
If true, Federico can hardly be faulted for his failure to draw the link between the word and its history as a pejorative for Asian-Americans.
Over the years, a curious phenomenon has taken place.
So many of the racial and ethnic pejoratives for a whole host of groups – Irish, Italians, Jews, Latinos, Poles, even, with the exception of a notable football team, Native Americans – thankfully have virtually disappeared from the lexicon.
Terms such as “Spic” or “Polack,” which used to be fighting words back in the day, now elicit blank stares and confusion when mentioned to teenagers, millennials or Gen Xers. Blank stares or answers like I got from Justin Morton, a 35-year-old grad student from New York,
“What?” asked Morton, who is black, when I spoke with him and tossed out some old-time epithets.
“I don’t know. We used to chant, ‘wop, wop, wop’ at concerts when we wanted to boo somebody off the stage.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Is that for somebody who’s gay?”
No one can argue that the reduction in the use of traditional racial and ethnic slurs means that American society has rid itself of all its prejudices. At the same time, it is undeniable that so many racial and ethnic slurs have been driven out of the public square by a general view that uttering such words is unacceptable. And that’s a good thing.
“These are hard, hard, bigoted words,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “There are consequences for their use – social consequences, political consequences, commercial consequences.”
To be sure, there are new terms generally targeting immigrants, just like the old pejoratives that were directed at folks just off the boat from Europe. “Terrorist” has become a euphemism for Arabs and Muslims, whether or not they are law-abiding. “Illegal” is used for Latinos, no matter what their citizenship status. And, as former Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman has noted, black people, especially black men, have collectively become “thugs.” What binds these new terms is that they are ambiguous.
In today’s supposedly more-tolerant society, they serve a dog whistle function that allows users to denigrate people without suffering social consequences.
“People can evade accusations of racism,” says Paul Garrett, associate professor of linguistic anthropology at Temple University. “But everybody knows exactly who you are talking about.”
There is, of course, one slur that has refused to be consigned to the dustbin of linguistic history and one whose target is clear: nigger.
The n-word’s resiliency is probably because of two major factors.
It is evidence that bigotry against black people is more virulent than animus toward any other racial or ethnic group. Sure, it’s been driven underground too. As Obama noted, it’s no longer polite to use it in public – at least in its use among white people. But, it seems to dwell there like subsurface magma rather than die out like other slurs. While white use of “nigger” may occasionally burst through to the surface, no one is going to produce a cell phone video of a bunch of frat boys singing, “there will never be a guinea in SAE.”
But let’s face it, another reason the n-word has a half-life that rivals plutonium is that black people keep it alive; and not just alive in the code-switching way where it is bandied about in private, but shunned in public.
“When I was growing up, black people would get together in a group, and we would use it,” says Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor and author of “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” “But it was for in-group use only, and we would be watchful that other people didn’t hear us.
“Today, you’re on a bus, or in the subway or in a mall and people are just out-and-out using it. There’s no self-consciousness, no embarrassment. It’s normalized. That too has led to its singular prominence in the society.”
The generational divide in the black community over the use of the word has been noted many times. But black baby boomers like myself have to acknowledge our role in keeping it alive. Go to any barber shop or beauty parlor with a black clientele on a Saturday afternoon, and you will hear phrases like the dismissive putdown, “nigger, please,” uttered repeatedly in storytelling, followed by riotous guffaws from 50-, 60- and 70-year-old men and women.
And it was members of my generation who, 40 years ago, laughed uproariously at Richard Pryor’s brilliant albums like “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and his n-word-infused comedy routines in front of mixed audiences that helped give the term its shaky public acceptability.
Who are we now to wag our fingers at rappers like Trinidad James? Can we ask whites and other blacks to not use the word and not give up our love of Chris Rock?
So, for better or worse, what the n-word has – and what other racial and ethnic slurs lack – is a constituency, a broad-based coalition whose component parts have embraced the word for their own reasons.
There are white racists who use it because they are, well, white racists.
There are black baby boomers who may decry the term, but use it in private settings and are loath to fess up to the fact that it is they who let “nigger” out of the black closet.
There are black rappers and other entertainers who make millions of dollars exploiting a word associated with poor people in the ghetto.
There are younger black people who have embraced it as a hip term of endearment.
There are whites who are not racists but who want to sound cool and feel protected by black people’s use of the term. And now there are analysts such as President Obama who will make use of the term apparently to get our attention as they seek to explain the country’s still-volatile racial dynamic.
In the face of this army of the “n-word,” do those who wish it would go the way of the ethnic slurs of yesteryear really have a chance? We may have to resign ourselves to the idea that, despite the hand-wringing, this nettlesome word sadly isn’t going away anytime soon.