Understanding the 'N' word

Posted: Feb 22, 2001 12:00 AM
The occasion: Black History Month. The setting: A hotel in the Bay area community of Emeryville. The forum: The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, with 400 blacks in the audience. California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, the keynote speaker, and a Hispanic liberal, discussed the history of the black union movement. So far, so good. But, incredibly, instead of using the word "Negro," Bustamante used a racial epithet for blacks. That's right, he used the "n" word. Shocked attendees sat with their mouths open, with as many as 100 getting up and walking out. Shell-shocked, Bustamante immediately apologized: "I told folks there in the room that I can't let you leave and think (that) somehow this is me. I know it came out of my mouth, but it is not how I was taught. It is not how I teach my children." But how does one explain this? Does he use the word in private, perhaps explaining how it "slipped"? Bustamante went into damage control. He promptly met with local black leaders, who forgave him for his "slip," noting that his background establishes him as a man sympathetic with civil rights. After all, Bustamante opposed Proposition 209, the ballot initiative to eliminate race- and gender-based preferences. He opposed Proposition 227, the initiative to end certain bilingual education programs in public schools. He also opposed Proposition 187, the initiative to end taxpayer funding of education and other benefits for illegal aliens. In short, he is a good guy. Now, hold on just a sec. Haven't we been taught that any "unauthorized" use of the "n" word makes the speaker a bigot? In "Any Day Now," a cable series on Lifetime, an upcoming episode centers around the "n" word. A black teenager strikes, and unintentionally kills, a white kid who uses the epithet. A defense expert testifies about the offensiveness and history of the word, calling it "the most explosive racial slur you can hurl at an African American." But, remember, the speaker gets a pass if, like Bustamante, he can fall back on his non-racist past. Didn't John Rocker possess a clean record? Certainly, the Atlanta Braves relief pitcher made offensive remarks about gays, foreigners and New York. But prior to Rocker's infamous Sports Illustrated interview, no one accused the ballplayer of bigotry. Indeed, while in the minor leagues, Rocker invited black and Latin ballplayers to stay at his home. No matter. Rocker's statements made him poster boy for Bigotry in America, irrespective of the absence of a record of racial insensitivity. Similarly, golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, criticized for making racially insensitive remarks about Tiger Woods, had suffered no previous accusations. Sportscaster Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder lost his job for clumsily expounding on the superiority of black athletes. And former Dodger general manager Al Campanis lost his job when on "Nightline" he fumbled a question concerning the lack of blacks in management. Neither Snyder nor Campanis had been previously accused of bigotry. The reviled LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman used the "n" word dozens of times on a tape recording. Prosecutor Chris Darden attempted to exclude this information, arguing that the use of the "n" word would stir the prejudices of the mostly black jury. But Fuhrman's record, too, showed praise by female and minority colleagues. Indeed, it was Fuhrman's apparent lack of bigotry that made colleagues so shocked by his taped vulgarity. But the Rocker standard of zero tolerance, no matter one's past, apparently only applies to certain people. Black former California State Senator Diane Watson blasted black anti-affirmative action proponent Ward Connerly. Connerly's crime? He's married to a white woman. Said Watson, "He's married a white woman. He wants to be white. He wants a colorless society. He has no ethnic pride. He doesn't want to be black. I said that." Not only did Watson fail to apologize, but then President Bill Clinton named her ambassador to Micronesia. When "good guys" slip, it's no problem. Terry McAuliffe, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, recently made "a mistake." In a meeting with state Democratic leaders, including some blacks, McAuliffe used the term "colored people." His spokeswoman said, "What he meant to say was 'people of color.'" This satisfied black former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, who pronounced this a non-issue. (Would it have been a non-issue if uttered by, say, Attorney General John Ashcroft?) The bottom line? Jesse Jackson says "Hymie" and "Hymie-town," apologizes, and all is forgiven. Activist Al Sharpton calls Jews "diamond merchants" and "white interlopers," and merely apologizes. "Good guys" like Bustamante survive, but "bad guys" like Rocker, Campanis and Snyder go down. See, use of the "n" word automatically means you're a bigot, unless you're a "good guy." Then your past record determines whether we call you racist. Unless it doesn't. Got that?