Updated at 4:25 p.m.
In 1993, The New York Times published an article headlined “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Nigger’ Fires Bitter Debate.” It’s not a word likely to find its way into headlines today.
Sometime in the past 25 years, using that word became the only proof of racism that much of the country is willing to accept. The dividing line is hard to find, but one pivotal moment came during the O. J. Simpson trial, as Simpson’s defense team fought to get a tape of Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman using the word admitted as evidence. Fuhrman had previously denied using the word in the past decade; the defense tracked down a recording of Fuhrman using it in conversation with a scriptwriter who was working on a film about the LAPD.
The prosecutor Chris Darden argued that “the N word” was the “dirtiest, filthiest, nastiest word in the English language,” and that “it’ll upset the black jurors. It’ll issue a test, and the test will be: Whose side are you on? The side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen, or are you on the side of the black defendant and his very prominent and capable black lawyer?” Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s defense attorney, said Darden’s remarks, implying that black jurors would be unable to handle hearing the word, were patronizing. “African Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives,” Cochran said at the time. “And yet they still believe in this country.”
The tape was ultimately played for the jurors, and Simpson was acquitted—Darden’s prediction that the tape would throw the case became something like conventional wisdom outside of the black community. But even at the time, black L.A. residents saw the trial as related to something bigger—the LAPD’s discriminatory policing. The Simpson trial came a few short years after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, despite being caught on video. The incident was a flash point for the city and the country, symbolizing not only police brutality, but police impunity, the sense that the LAPD could abuse its powers without consequence. “They hired [Darden] to smokescreen the issue,” Robin Waller, a barber, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “The issue they are hiding is that there is racism in … the Police Department.” Fuhrman’s taped remarks said nothing about the LAPD that much of the black community in Los Angeles did not already believe.
Since then, the word has marked a strange kind of red line. Most white Americans accept that using the word is racist, but many believe that no offense short of using the word really counts. That standard has even been weaponized—most typically against black Americans who use it in an entirely different context to refer to one another. The use of the word, though, can be appropriate or inappropriate. As always, the relevant factor is the context in which it is used. Neither its use, nor its absence, are by themselves evidence of racism or non-racism.
Racism has always been about power and policy, and reducing the complex history of white supremacy in America—from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow to mass incarceration—to naughty words ensures that it can never be understood. You can treat someone like a nigger without ever using the word. While the indignity of individual racial discrimination is a part of racial oppression in America, it is by no means the only or most important part. At its core lies the use of state and cultural power to elevate white people at the expense of everyone else.
That fact is why the uproar over the allegations from Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the reality-TV villain turned Trump White House staffer, that there are recordings of Donald Trump using the word are almost beside the point. Trump began his campaign denigrating Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, he vowed to ban Muslims from the country, and he invoked stereotypes of black crime to paint a picture of a harrowing dystopia from which only he could rescue Americans. Since becoming president, his administration neglected Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Americans and thousands of deaths; it has sought to portray immigrants as criminals in order to justify the revocation of legal status for hundreds of thousands of black and Latino immigrants; it issued a travel ban aimed at Muslim countries; and it has rolled back civil-rights enforcement, encouraged police abuses, and sought to weaken the voting power of minority communities. Trump rode to the White House promising to use the power of the state against religious and ethnic minorities, and he has kept that promise. Even if, as Trump says, the word nigger isn’t in his vocabulary, it wouldn’t change everything else he has done.
Some have argued that Republican voters held their noses and voted for Trump because, while odious, issues dear to their hearts like religious freedom, or abortion, or taxes compelled them to make such a choice. But there’s no evidence a large number of Republicans object to Trump’s discriminatory policies, or to his frequent attacks on black public figures. According to one recent CBS poll, while most Americans disapprove of Trump’s record on racial issues, 83 percent of Republicans approve. The vast, overwhelming majority of Republicans aren’t quietly disgusted with Trump, but grateful for Neil Gorsuch. When Trump calls black athletes who protest police brutality “sons of bitches” and demands they be fired, they’re not embarrassed. They like it. Trump knows they like it. That’s why he keeps doing it.
Given that, it’s hard to imagine that, even if a tape of Trump using the word nigger exists, it would substantially erode political support from his base. The idea that the word is some kind of red line that erases plausible deniability is an illusion. Every time Trump’s behavior violates some conservative value—from his alleged infidelity to his denigration of war heroes and gold-star families to his relentless crony capitalism— pundits predict his undoing, and Trump emerges unscathed. There’s no reason why many of Trump’s strongest supporters wouldn’t also be able to rationalize his use of a racial slur, especially given their enthusiasm for his culture-war provocations.
It’s possible that this time would be different, that a recording of Trump using a racial slur would meaningfully alter his supporters’ perception of him. But given this track record, it seems very unlikely.
The more likely outcome is the one that followed the recording of the president saying he likes to grab women “by the pussy.” Most Trump supporters easily acquiesced to the explanation that the remarks were mere “locker-room talk,” despite the more than a dozen women who said otherwise. This time, too, many would likely argue the tape is fake, or taken out of context, or that he’s being victimized by the political-correctness police. Or they’d simply change the subject. (Aren’t there lots of recordings of the Pulitzer Prize–winning artist Kendrick Lamar using the word? Checkmate, libs.)
The claim itself is difficult to evaluate; Manigault-Newman is not the most reliable of narrators. Whether the tape actually exists, though, is ultimately less interesting than the fact that both Trump’s critics and his closest aides believe such a tape could exist. That is, both Trump’s greatest detractors and the people who work most closely with him believe he’s capable of using the word, even if they’ve never heard him. On Tuesday, Manigault-Newman released to CBS News a recording of a conversation between the Trump aides Lynne Patton, Katrina Pierson, and Manigault-Newman herself anticipating the release of such a tape. None of them are in disbelief that such a tape could exist.
Patton: I said, “Well, sir, can you think of anytime where this happened?” And he said, “No.”
Manigault-Newman: Well, that is not true.
Patton: He goes, “How do you think I should handle it?” and I told him exactly what you just said, Omarosa, which is, “Well, it depends on what scenario you are talking about.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you just go ahead and put it to bed.”
Pierson: He said. No, he said it. He is embarrassed by it.
No one in this exchange is surprised, because they all know Trump so well. Pierson and Manigault-Newman are actually convinced he said it. After a year of blanket denials of one sort or another from the podium, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters she could not “guarantee” that Americans would never hear Trump use the term.
That’s one of the stranger paradoxes of this political era: Trump’s political opponents know who he is. His aides know who he is. Americans don’t need a tape to know who Trump is, or what he represents. He’s already shown who he is. He shows it every day.
The only people still laboring under the delusion that Trump lacks the animus to use a racial epithet are some of the people who voted for him. It would be naive to think that a mere recording of him using it would alter that.