But Obama is the first African-American president. His use of the term is fraught with a kind of complexity and nuance that sets him apart from his predecessors.
Speaking to comedian Marc Maron for his “WTF” podcast just a few days after nine black Americans were gunned down during a Bible study service in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white man, Dylann Roof, Obama noted that while slavery and the institutionalized discrimination of the Jim Crow era had ended, racism in America has not.
“And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n****r’ in public,” Obama said. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two hundred to three hundred years prior.”
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Because everything this president says — especially on the subject of race — is inevitably dissected and often misinterpreted, his use of the N-word has already stirred controversy.
It’s one of the many great ironies of Obama’s presidency: While his historic achievement of becoming the first black president has certainly led to a louder national discussion on race, it has not always brought about a more thoughtful one.
From the moment he took office, Obama was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t when it comes to the topic of race. While a vocal chorus of his supporters — many of them African-American — complain he’s been too timid on the matter, whenever he’s tried to be candid about race it has backfired on him politically.
When Obama criticized the arrest in 2009 of a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, when he tried to enter his own home, it launched an erosion of white support from which the president never fully recovered. Rush Limbaugh infamously declared that the biracial president had a “chip on his shoulder” regarding race — a sentiment many white Americans may have shared but didn’t dare articulate.
And yet Obama has been educating this country on race since before he was even elected, whether he intended to or not. Race has shaped him personally in profound ways, and he’s never been more compelling than when he talks about the topic.
His legendary “race speech” during the 2008 presidential campaign had its detractors, but for the most part it showed a compelling and eloquent figure uniquely skilled at expressing the racial angst all Americans feel regardless of background. Since then, from discrediting “birthers” to dismissing hateful imagery on social media (Obama is often pictured hanging in effigy), this president has shown remarkable poise in the face of often staunch racial prejudice.
Many critics insist Obama is an imperfect messenger on matters of race. Some claim he is not authentically black because he is not descended from American slaves. Income inequality has gotten worse under this president, not better. And even after appointing the nation’s first and second black attorneys general, he has not been able to curb racially biased police practices or the proliferation of hate groups.
And yet not since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a black man so been able to lead the national conversation and capture the public’s attention on racial matters.
His use of the N-word comes at a particularly strange time on the racial landscape. On the one hand there is former NAACP official Rachel Dolezal, who appears to have heralded a brave new world by being a white woman who chooses to identify as black — something that once would have been unthinkable. And on the other hand, there is Roof, who at 21 appears to have been seduced by some of the most tired, old-fashioned white supremacist rhetoric — and whose crime recalls centuries of unwarranted brutality visited on blacks all in the name of racial pride.
In such a confusing climate, the president’s comments will inevitably be a distraction and misunderstood. It wasn’t long ago that the N-word was used freely and with the intent to demean black people.
Today, there are those who argue that it should be buried — that no one of any race should ever use it under any circumstances. There are others still who make the case that it can be a term of endearment if you drop the ‘er’ and simply replace it with an 'a.' And for so many black Americans — particularly of the younger generation — the word is simply a cultural fixture in their speech and way of life, something that can’t just be wiped away because it makes some people uncomfortable.
In using the term, Obama was making the point that a preoccupation with a superficial gesture or word overshadows far more insidious acts of racially biased behavior. In other words — no one wants to be labeled a racist, yet people often remain indifferent to racist views or racist behavior.
While hate speech is routinely condemned, not much time is spent trying to determine where the hate comes from. It’s easy to decry the use of a racial slur, but rarely is the question asked: Why do so many people still hold onto such age-old prejudice?
It’s safe to say no mainstream American wants to be associated with white supremacists. But where is the outrage around subtler expressions of racism, like predatory lenders who exploit black families or racist landlords who embrace discriminatory housing practices? Why do so many polls show that whites don’t believe racial prejudice is a significant problem in this country? And why do so many rush to the defense of white police officers who shoot unarmed black men?
Roof declared on his purported website that all African-Americans are “stupid and violent,” yet apparently failed to see the hypocrisy in the fact that he then killed nine innocent black people.
Whether or not he had a Confederate flag on his car begins to seem pretty trivial when you look at the full scope of what he did and why he did it.
Of course, identifying the root causes of hate is a difficult and time-consuming process. Many people would rather wag their fingers than look in a mirror.
This is where Obama has a unique opportunity. With no more elections ahead of him but with full command of the bully pulpit, he can continue to speak frankly about race in a way nobody else can. That conversation won’t always be pretty but it needs to happen. This president can force us to have it.