Making a Point, Obama Invokes a Painful Slur

23 Jun 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

If President Obama Can Say It, You Can Too.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says the history of slavery and segregation is “still part of our DNA” in the United States, even if racial epithets no longer show up in polite conversation. President Obama invoked the word “nigger” in a podcast interview released on Monday to drive home his point that slavery still “casts a long shadow” on American life.On the face of it, President Barack Obama’s use of the ‘N’ word in an interview released Monday seems out of character for a man who has made strenuous efforts to avoid provocative statements on race and to ensure that the color of his own skin does not dominate his presidency. Obama made his remarks to “WTF with Marc Maron” as the nation was struggling to comprehend the murders last week of nine African American churchgoers at an evening prayer service, allegedly at the hands of a white supremacist. But in the process, he touched a raw nerve in a country struggling to confront racism and hatred in the days after nine black parishioners were killed during Bible study in a South Carolina church. “We’re not cured of it,” Mr.

But his frank discussion of race relations seemed to signal the U.S. president was finally willing to wade into the tortured debate, after long appearing more of a neutral referee on America’s black-white playing field. Obama’s choice of words was jarring because he has gingerly picked his way through a string of political minefields over the last six-and-a-half years, thrown up by a series of racially charged episodes, from the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and, more recently, Baltimore. The shooting on Wednesday occurred with the nation already emotionally raw from a spate recent of racially tense confrontations between police and African Americans. During his time in the White House, it’s sometimes seemed as though Obama talks about race only when he has to, when circumstances or crises force him to weigh in. Police killings and the subsequent protests triggered debate about the persistence of racial injustice decades after inroads made during the civil rights movement.

He’s rarely spoken with the daring candor that marked his speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign and he’s tried to avoid political firestorms like the one triggered by his comments on the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates during his first term. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.” Obama’s remarks came during an interview out Monday with comedian Marc Maron for his popular podcast, where coarse language is often part of the discussion. Obama has begun to speak more freely about race since he won re-election, including the launch of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to mentor African American youths.

The president uttering a racial slur aloud stirred controversy, especially on social media, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said later Monday that wasn’t surprising. He did confront the issue soon after taking office, obliquely questioning the police arrest of a respected black university professor, only to endure a wave of criticism. In May 2014, a member of the police commission in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, used the word to describe Obama and subsequently resigned. “He still has a ways to go in talking about racism and I had hoped he would be more assertive in his second term,” Asim said. “He needs to address the idea that white people need to have a conversation about race among themselves. At the University of Virginia in 2003, a medical-center employee said having a football team called the Redskins is as “derogatory to Indians as having a team called N—— would be to blacks.” This sparked a protest by the black staff, with her union head suggesting she be fired.

Yet to some critics, he failed to tap into the sense of persecution the incident evoked in many black Americans, regardless of the fact the policeman was eventually exonerated. “Many like me were just hoping that he would have gotten his groove a little earlier,” said Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Washington’s Georgetown University. “He would be one person one place and another person in another.” Yet at the same time, conservative white politicians and pundits condemned even his muted commentary on racially tinged incidents. It’s the silent majority of white people who benefit from privilege and that needs to be topic one.” “Our dear brother President — thank God he is now weighing in.

When civil-liberties advocate Wendy Kaminer used the N-word to criticize it in a panel discussion at Smith College last fall, she was roasted for committing an “explicit act of racial violence.” According to the rules of our taboo, black people are allowed to use the word (including with one another to mean “buddy,” a complex matter in itself) because we have been the ones subjected to its abusive usage. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party-linked senator and presidential candidate, suggested in April that Obama had “inflamed race relations,” though offered little evidence to bolster the allegation. How long has it taken him to talk honestly about how deep racism cuts?” Cornel West, an author and academic who has been deeply critical of Obama on race, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow. By then, Obama had become less reticent to speak out, saying that the death of Freddie Gray, a black man, in the custody of Baltimore police “raised troubling questions.” He may be more outspoken about the issue today, but is he able to do more than mount the bully pulpit and speak his mind?

But he said the word was no better than the Confederate flag or the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan. “It ought to be retired from the English language,” he said. “Put it right next to the flag, in a linguistic museum. Obama sat for the interview Friday in Maron’s Los Angeles garage studio — close to where the president attended Occidental College — and seemed to marvel at the absurdity of it. “If I thought to myself that when I was in college that I’d be in a garage a couple miles away from where I was living, doing an interview as president, with a comedian … it’s not possible to imagine,” he said.

Long gone, meanwhile, is the dream of some Americans that the election of the country’s first black president would usher in a time where race no longer mattered. To many, hearing blacks use the N-word, even to refer to it, is awkward because of how arbitrary it seems that whites are tarred as racists when they, too, are simply referring to it.

For example, I myself occasionally use the actual word in just the way that Obama did in my classes, when a societal issue comes up and I want the rhetorical clarity of the word itself rather than a coy euphemism. Occasionally one of my more vocal white students has jokingly commented “See, you can say it!” The comment carries an implication (which he would never venture out loud) that it seems a little arbitrary that I am allowed to say it just because I’m black.

Obama was not surprised by the reaction to a word that has long conjured images of lynchings, oppression, bigotry and discrimination, while becoming unmentionable in most parts of public life. What have we gained since then in barring people from ever uttering the word even to discuss it—other than a fake, ticklish nicety that seems almost designed to create misunderstandings? But he has shown increasing eagerness to discuss the evolution in his own thinking about racial identity and the country’s difficult racial struggle. Morial said such a shift seemed inevitable. “Every president, towards the end of their term, when they are freed of the straitjacket of having to think every moment of the day about what is required in the election, can think about the country, about their legacy and about the more difficult issues,” he said.

He talked about being a rebel during his youth and “trying on” different personas as he struggled to understand what kind of African-American man he wanted to be. “I’m trying on a whole bunch of outfits,” Mr. Here’s what it means to be a man.” He said that a lot of his anguish when he was young “revolved around race” but that his attitude changed around the time he turned 20. Obama began talking about race and his upbringing when he wrote the memoir “Dreams From My Father” as he was about to begin his first campaign, for the Illinois State Senate in 1995.

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