Obama and the N-word

The president reacts to the news of the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, CC BY-SA

The president said the N-word, and it became a top news story.

Now, it wasn’t the first time a president said the word — recordings exist in which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon use the term artfully and prolifically.

However, it was the first time in recent memory that we know that a president used the term and meant to be heard saying it publicly. And, of course, it is not lost on audiences that said president is black.

Since I am someone who studies how black politicians born after 1960 advocate for African American interests, this story definitely piqued my interest.

What does it mean for any president, much less a black one who used race-neutral campaign tactics, to use such a word?

And is our attention on this story a distraction, especially in light of real racial issues, like police brutality and the recent hate crime in Charleston?

A proper use of language

I think people are making a bigger deal about President Obama’s use of this word than is necessary.

Yes, it is rarely heard in polite company. But if one has to use the word, the way in which President Obama deployed it was entirely proper.

He was not using it as part of his Chris Rock or Richard Pryor impression. He was not calling out any person or group of people. He used the term in the context of talking about people who say that word.

And frankly, by using the actual word instead of resorting to the contrivance of saying “the N-word,” he was rhetorically effective.

The problem is our collective American tendency to be superficial.

When President Obama invoked the N-word, he was making an important point about structural racism and our moral responsibility to be vigilant against all remaining forms of racial discrimination.

He rightly pointed out that some people think that refraining from the use of racial slurs is the sum of eliminating racism.

He rightfully observed that removing those words from one’s vocabulary is but a small part of promoting racial equality.

Yes, we should modify our language to be respectful of all people, but one can racially profile, deny jobs, housing and equal pay, and provide substandard schooling to minorities without calling them a racial slur. Frankly, these things are materially more important.

In his own way, President Obama was trying to shock Americans into thinking more critically about racial issues.

Starting a conversation about race

There is a tendency in this country to avoid serious conversations about race.

We’d rather relegate racism to the 1950s or contend that it is a province of backwards southerners.

Then, when we are confronted with the facts of continuing inequality — like the fact that in New York, black and Latino youth were more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police without cause or that last year, the Pew Research Center found that median white net worth was 13 times the median net worth of blacks — we look for every other possible explanation and refuse to confront the ways that racism explains a lot of the disparity.

Americans’ tendency to not address an obvious cause of so much inequality and strife dooms us to repeat the same cycle of racial conflict and even violence over and over again.

Some people might argue that by resurrecting such a hurtful word, President Obama was creating another smokescreen for racial issues.

Instead of talking about healing Charleston, for instance, news programs are devoting airtime to deconstructing the president’s use of this word.

Just one of the many media dissections of the president’s language.

Hopefully, though, the president’s deployment of this term (and his larger argument for having deeper discussions about how to reduce racial inequality) will sink in because of the shock of having him speak so bluntly about the issue.

If by next week, we are talking about actual structural inequality and not about the fact that President Obama said the N-word (to be clear, the current debate about the Confederate flag is an important one but a symbolic issue), then perhaps we can give him credit for having started a meaningful dialogue about race.

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