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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 27, 2006

Black activists should wage war on N-word

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Epithet's persistent use plays into the hands of racist hate criminals

Former "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards quickly bowed to public pressure and apologized for his boneheaded, N-word-laced diatribe against black customers who allegedly heckled him during his appearance at the Laugh Factory.

But Richards was a soft target. He's a white man who sprinted way over the line of racial etiquette. It was a no-brainer that blacks would rage against him, just as they've done against other white celebrities, politicians and public figures caught with their racial pants down. When the predictable firestorm hits, they do their mea culpas and declare they're not racist.

The same can't be said for black comedians and rappers who have virtually canonized the N-word. They sprinkle it throughout their lyrics and comedy lines, and black writers, and filmmakers go through lengthy gyrations to justify using the word. During a panel discussion at the Summer Television Critics Association tour in 2005, Aaron McGruder, creator of the popular comic strip Boondocks, defiantly told the audience that he'd use the N-word as much as he pleased. If folks didn't like it, well, tough.

N-word users and apologists serve up the lame rationale that the more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks.

The apologists tick off an endless storehouse of defenses to justify use of the word. Some claim it's a term of endearment or affection. Others use it to convey anger or disdain. Still, others are defiant. They say they don't care what a white person calls them since words can't harm them.

They forget, ignore or distort one thing: Words are not value neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often, words reflect society's standards. If color-phobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then something as emotionally charged as the N-word will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can't be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. It can't be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what the excuse is for using it.

There are still dozens of daily examples where whites (and other non-blacks) taunt and harass blacks by using the N-word, spray paint it on homes, businesses, churches, or physically assault and even murder blacks. In the FBI's annual count of hate crimes in America, blacks still make up the overwhelming majority of victims.

The N-word reigns supreme at the top of the stack as the favorite racial epithet hurled at blacks during these crimes. Even when the word isn't used, the sentiment is that blacks are still fair game for abuse and dehumanization, and the N-word reinforces that belief. The N-word will always have grotesque and deadly meaning.

In all fairness, a handful of black activists have waged war against the N-word. There's a Web site that hawks T-shirts and DVDs and exhorts blacks, especially young blacks, to solemnly pledge not to use the word or patronize anyone who puts out products that use it. But they are the exception. Too often, blacks have been more than willing to give other blacks who use the word a pass.

Richards gave no public hint before his profane outburst that he was a closet bigot who routinely used the word in reference to blacks. But he didn't have to. The obsessive use of and the tortured defense of the word by so many blacks gave Richards the license to use the word without any thought that there'd be any blow back for doing it. He was terribly wrong and got publicly called out for it. The blacks who use and defend that word should be called out, too.

Who's willing to do that?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Emerging Black GOP Majority." Reach him at Hutchinsonreport@aol.com. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.