Politics and the African-American Human Language

For the NFL to ban the word "nigger" would be racist.
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Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito, who called his teammate Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger." (AP)

The effort to ban the word "nigger" from the NFL is not just, as Richard Sherman smartly points out, borderline racist but actually racist. Any effort to raise a standard for African-American humans that does not exist for non-African-American humans is racist.

As I've explained before, the meaning of human language changes with context. That is why you may call your wife honey, but I probably should not. That is why Toby Keith referring to himself as "White Trash With Money" will never be the same as me accusing Toby of being "white trash with money." That is why Dan Savage proposing a column entitled "Hey Faggot!" will never be the same as me seeing Dan Savage on the street and yelling "Hey Faggot!" This is how humans use language, and it is wholly consistent with how black humans use language. The effort to punish this use, like all respectability politics, is an effort to punish black humanity, is racism. 

It does not matter that black people of a certain persuasion are making this charge. Black people of a certain persuasion also supported the kind of laws that now find one third of all black men under state supervision. This is not an appeal to a crowd, it is an appeal to the basic rules of language, without which we would all be soon reduced to babble.  When people claim that the word "nigger" must necessarily mean the same thing, at all times, spoken by all people, one wonders whether they understand how the very words coming out of their mouth actually work.

The great Harry Carson illustrates the point here:

I find it very disheartening that in our society today we're having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment. If that's a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.

This is deep ignorance masquerading as expertise. As anyone who's spent time with African-American history, and specifically with the literature, testimonials, and music of enslaved black people, knows the use of "nigger" by black people to describe themselves is ancient. And as anyone with any familiarity with human beings knows, there are great many things you would not say to your grandfather that you would say to your friends, your wife, or your brother. And as anyone familiar with black people knows, many of our grandfathers certainly used "nigger" themselves. 

In a particularly sad portion of the Wells Report, Jonathan Martin laments being derided as a nigger to his face by Richie Incognito. Martin's father's response is, "They think nigger is okay because black people use it." I read these words as the testimonial of someone coping with the trauma of rape. I am not sure that this is far off. Black America was birthed in a spectacular act of rape—literal and symbolic and our oppression has often been born as such. They enslave us because we are heathen. They spit on us because our hair is too nappy. They beat us because we are too dark. They hate us because we are too loud. They oppress us because we are too rude. They kill us because we are too human. 

Baldwin knew:

 It is difficult to be born in a place where you are despised and also promised that with endeavor – with this, with that, you know – you can accomplish the impossible. You’re trying to deal with the man, the woman, the child – the child of whichever sex – and he or she and your man or your woman has got to deal with the 24-hour-a-day facts of life in this country. We’re not going to fly off someplace else, you know, we’d better get through whatever that day is and still have each other and still raise children – somehow manage all of that. And this is 24 hours of every day, and you’re surrounded by all of the paraphernalia of safety: If you can strike this bargain here. If you can make sure your armpits are odorless. Curl your hair. Be impeccable. Be all the things that the American public says you should do, right? And you do all those things – and nothing happens really. And what is much worse than that, nothing happens to your child either.

The religion of nigger-cleansing is desperation, a mythology adopted in the shadow of seemingly unerring inequality. It awards a sense of power, a belief that the parishioner might be rendered Christ-like and impeccable.  But the actual record of nigger-cleansing is dubious. 

Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman knew:

am just as much opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship.

Booker T. Washington could not stop the Red Summers. That is because racism neither needs, nor seeks, black people's permission. That is because the wolf does not care if the sheep is respectable. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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