That Word vs. America

So Tim Allen has decided to publicly defuse that most egregious of English words: the six-letter one that starts with n and ends with r.

Allen is not the first you'd guess would attempt such a thing. He's a distinct example of the nonaggressive type of comic -- not quite the schmoe dumped on by the entire universe, but not far from that either.  The kind of comic you'd encounter in Disney films, Dagwood Bumstead in the flesh.

This has been done before, but by edgy, wild-eyed types such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Neither quite defanged the term -- Bruce was operating in the midst of the cultural revolution that would set the modern view of race in concrete, while Pryor, a figure of the 70s, was transparently playing off of white guilt. The times just weren't right; you can't run a railroad if the tracks aren't laid down first.

But today in the new millennium, things are different. As the Zimmerman trial has revealed, the race card has become frayed and tattered from continual overuse. Whites don't feel very guilty anymore, a full century and a half after the demise of slavery and fifty years after the collapse of legal segregation. A solution to the racial impasse of the past half-century, in which every last American, white, black, or "other," has been forced to act as if both those historical inequities ended only last Tuesday -- if in fact they'd ended at all -- is long overdue.  A solution to the n-word conundrum is a central element of this.

Nothing symbolizes American racial tensions more than this single word (if that's the actual term for it --- see below). It's the definition of a fighting word, a word so radioactive it cannot be touched. It's the word that destroyed Paula Deen's vast food empire, the word that played a large part in freeing O.J. The Justice Department, under the wise and judicious Eric Holder, is now spending vast amounts of government money in an attempt to discover whether a man found not guilty in a court of law ever uttered it, under the supposition that it will render him guilty again.

It has been abused by race hustlers of all stripes for generations. Every few years the debate churns up again, triggered by some loudmouth rapper or an unfortunate honest grandmother. We get the bit lips and hurt expressions from black public figures, the overeager apologies from white betas, the solemn processions of blacks carrying coffins marked "the N-word". Everybody wants to see it gone, buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart. But like a movie zombie, it always gets up and goes shambling into town once again, looking for Paula Deens to bite. 

Why all this effort? Because we all know that when that word is at last abolished, we will look around and see that there is no more Klan, that no one is being lynched any longer, that segregation has been overcome, that civil rights have been guaranteed to all Americans.

Of course, it has been generations since all that actually occurred. Most of the burdens on blacks, legal and social, have been removed. Trillions have been spent on the cause of repairing the ravages of racism. Atrocious racist attacks against blacks have become so rare (the last occurring with James Byrd in Texas in 1998) that they have to be manufactured, as in the Zimmermann case. In point of fact, there have been rumors that the president of the United States has a substantial black African heritage -- though how that can be in such a racist environment is something impossible to surmise.

But since we still have that potent n-word, nothing has actually changed.

This state of affairs reveals an odd sense of weakness among blacks. We've been told constantly that black Americans are tougher than inbred whites, stronger, manlier, and more athletic, and the success of black sports figures suggests that there's at least a small grain of truth in this. But it's a strange kind of strength that utterly collapses with the use of a single word. Once it is uttered, whether in insult or inadvertence (as seems to have been the case with Riley Cooper) or even as a homophone (We all remember the case where a Washington bureaucrat used "niggardly" in front of a black colleague, who then stormed from the room. The official resigned, the country was thrown into uproar, and our honest media put serious effort into trying to demonstrate that the two words were actually related. All this over a single word that sounded a little like another word.)  Apparently blacks hearing the term collapse into despair. All activity ceases, all hopes are blasted. All progress made by an entire people since the days of Frederick Douglass is utterly cancelled out.

Every white, whether responsible of not, shares the shame and guilt of the speaker. The United States as a whole is revealed as a fraud and a hoax, a machine for destroying the descendants of slavery. Hatred and violence between the races is once again rendered eternal and poisonous. All because somebody spoke one word -- or didn't.

Other groups, ethnic and otherwise, don't operate this way. Customarily, groups adopt an insult as a show of defiance and solidarity, to demonstrate to their enemies that it doesn't hurt them and they'll have to do better next time. Mick, Jarhead, cowboy... ("Wop" is a strange one, an insult that originated as a compliment: guapo -- handsome.) "Yankee" began as an insult -- in fact, a double insult. It was first used by the Hudson Valley Dutch to describe the new English settlers (its origins are rather obscure -- it's either a local term for "blockhead" or a corruption of "John Cheese," reflecting the English propensity for founding dairy farms). A few decades later, British officers fighting in the French and Indian War used it to disparage American troops. During the Revolution, the colonials adopted not only the term, but the nasty little ditty the British had cooked up as well. Yankee Doodle Dandy paid the Limeys back in spades at Yorktown. (A century later the Confederates attempted to reinvigorate the term with little success. Oddly, using "rebel" can cause trouble even today in some corners of the South.)

There has been recent movement among rappers to do exactly this with the dreaded 5 letter word. By slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation, rap artists (NWA being the most notable example) have gotten clean away with it, even on the public airwaves. (Dr. Rachel Jeantel's analysis can be overlooked as something she learned on a street corner.) If this process were allowed to continue, the word would be defanged within a few years, an outcome far less unlikely than the possibility of rappers actually doing something beneficial for society. But that's not going to happen.

It's not going to happen because the word represents something to blacks that is effectively invisible to whites. It is a symbol of black pathology, as difficult to make sense of as the fears and obsessions of a neurotic. The word acts as a talisman. It's a crutch and an excuse. It is a cover for fear of failure, lack of confidence, and self-contempt. As long as some white, somewhere, can be presumed to be using -- or even thinking -- that word, racism still exists. As long as "nigger" remains potent, blacks don't have to try. They can resist taking on the full responsibilities of citizenship and continue badgering whites for pity and sympathy. The word is simply too useful to do without.

So while we can encourage Tim Allen in his crusade, little is likely to come of it. It could well be a simple matter -- Lenny Bruce suggested that President Kennedy use it in a speech (something that would make even more sense for Obama). It can and should be defused, at least to a point where helpless grandmothers aren't victimized over it. 

No word should have that kind of power. Particularly not a word that, for all practical purposes, is no more than a Southern backwoods mispronunciation of "Negro". A mistake, with no particular intrinsic content or inherent meaning whatsoever.

American blacks will never be truly free until they abandon the word, until they overcome its illusory power at last. Only they themselves can do this. The rest of us can only wait and hope that they muster the maturity to take that step.

At least this Mick does, anyway.