During an interview on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron,” Obama argued that while America has made some advancement in terms of race relations, “What is also true is the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.”
Obama added, “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.”
This is a thoughtful take on the state of racism in this country, but naturally, cable news chose instead to focus on “nigger.” Earlier today, a CNN segment weighing in on whether or not it was okay for Obama to use language that is “offensive to some.” It’s been a question I’ve since noticed has been repeated on the network. Then there is Fox News, which asked the same question with a panel of four white people.
I wish I could be amused by mass media’s disingenuousness. President Obama is not the first president to use “nigger,”—he’s merely the first one not to use it as a slur. For all his work on passing civil rights legislation, former Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson let the word fly freely and routinely from his mouth. The same goes for former Republican president Richard Nixon, and for Harry Truman, when he called Adam Clayton Powell “that damned nigger preacher.”
And, you know, all those other presidents who owned slaves and expressed deep contempt for black people.
So, with that in mind, what purpose does it serve asking whether or not the first black president’s use of “nigger” in the context of a larger reflection on covert versus overt racism relevant? Because a few white people will object? Who cares? How much longer are we going to entertain thoughts of whether or not there is a double standard at play? This is a ruse of the highest order. Even if you don’t agree with the approach, black people use “nigga” in a different context than “nigger.” Whites have every other advantage over blacks; they can take the “L” on this one word.
Context is everything. It’s not like Obama greeted Loretta Lynch as his “nigga” on stage recently. (Had he done so, I’d still stick with the belief that black people can say it and white people cannot. But he did not go there.) What Obama did was remind people—many of whom needed to hear it—that racism is not just calling someone a racial slur. It’s not just about a confederate flag, either.
It’s about things like mass incarceration or the reality that black college graduates face much higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. When it comes to the media, racism is the Meet The Press segment that featured only black men as the face of gun violence as host Chuck Todd asks viewers to view this as a “colorblind issue.” Meanwhile, Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who confessed to the Charleston Massacre, has netted descriptions like "quiet and soft-spoken" and a "loner caught in 'Internet evil.'" By comparison, 21-year-old James Jones gets treated to: "Son with troubled past shields mom from gunfire, dies saving her in South Chicago." Roof is no angel, a phrase the New York Times used to describe victim Mike Brown, but his whiteness allows him to be portrayed as a nuanced and complicated character. Blacks are not so fortunate—even in fatal acts of bravery or victimhood.
Debating the use of “nigger” over the more palatable “N-word” is just another example of people purposely opting to focus on the superficial rather than the substantive. If Fox News anchors continue to argue over semantics, they can get away with ignoring Obama’s point entirely. Which is exactly the way they want it.