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The ‘N-word’ Isn’t the Issue

Written by Joe Pettit
 
Originally published as a Baltimore Sun Op-Ed, March 8, 2010, p.13.

The recent firing of an adjunct art instructor by Towson University because the instructor used a racial slur raises many important issues related to race and the power of language, political correctness, and the over-reliance by state universities and state legislators on adjunct employees.  Less obvious, but more important, are problems that this incident demonstrates in the discussion of race in our country.

First, focusing on the use of a racial slur – in this case, the notorious “N-word” – reinforces the narrow practice of thinking about racial justice only in terms of the treatment of individuals rather than the inequalities in outcomes between racial groups.  The actions of Towson University make clear that certain words cannot be spoken by some on campus, but they do nothing to help us understand the problem of racial inequality.

Consider a few statistics.  According to the Urban League’s “State of Black America 2009,” the black poverty rate is three times higher than the white rate; white median household wealth is almost 11 times higher than black wealth; the incarceration rate of blacks is more than six times higher than it is for whites; and the rate of AIDS cases is 20 times higher for black women than for white women.  Outrage over the use of an offensive word may seem a small victory, but it does nothing to address these conditions.

Second, an emphasis on zero tolerance for racial slurs allows white Americans to think that they have done their part to secure racial justice, or that they have somehow managed to put racism behind them.  Ever since the elimination of most overt forms of racial discrimination, and as black women and men have found success in all areas of public life, there has been an assumption that many of the racial wounds of this country will soon heal.  Adding to this sense of inevitable racial justice is the notion that whatever racial inequality persists in our country is caused not primarily by oppressive governments, or racists individuals, but by the bad choices of those who experience the worst consequences of racial inequality: poor, urban black people.

However, once we accept this conclusion, it becomes impossible to avoid a stigmatizing suspicion of blacks in general.  With the classic expressions of racial injustice by governments and individuals no longer blamed for racial inequality, many find that only the nature and choices of individuals are left to explain persistent inequality.  For too many people, white as well as black, this has led to a division of black America into the successful and the broken, with most blacks assumed to be broken until proven otherwise.

This conclusion about a certain portion of black America has been allowed to endure unchallenged in our individual minds and our collective national consciousness because most of us have concluded that another portion of black America is not broken.  The old-fashioned collective racism that captures all blacks into one category of spoiled identities is explicitly rejected by most Americans.  Ironically, then, overcoming one form of racist thinking has contributed to the entrenchment of another form of racist thinking.  Thinking well of some black people does not require thinking well of black people as a group.

We do not demand public responses to racial inequality because we do not find the present realities and inequalities abnormal or unexpected.  We do not conclude that deep and persistent racial inequality still signals that there something is very wrong in our wider society because we believe that the source of the problem is in “them,” not in “us.”

But this sense of racial absolution is purchased as the cost of dividing our society into those who are superior and inferior, and the superior continue to be colored more white than otherwise.  Any commitment to racial equality and racial justice, however, requires that we reject all roads that lead to conclusions of racial superiority and inferiority, and this means rejecting anything other than the conclusion that achieving racial equality is completely the responsibility of our country, collectively, and not that of its most disadvantaged citizens.

We may still insist that each person should accept responsibility for choices made and for the outcomes in her or his life – and the unfortunate Towson instructor who used the “N-word” in class is certainly being held responsible for his choice of words.  But we must also insist on creating a world where the color of one’s skin has nothing to do with what those outcomes are.