Conservatives have had a hard time understanding the outrage over Trayvon Martin's death, and Thursday's head-scratcher comes from the National Review's Victor Davis Hanson, who is outraged over at the lack of rules for the appropriate use of the N-word. Hanson wonders why everyone is angry that it kind of sounds like George Zimmerman said "fucking coon" in the 911 call he made before shooting Martin (although his colleague Robert VerBruggen has done some amateur audio forensics to suggest that Zimmerman said something different), and yet no one is mad that Martin himself made his Twitter handle "NO_LIMIT_NIGGA." Two words considered slurs against black people, yet two different meanings. How can this be?
There are no such things any more as overtly recognized racial smears, at least not in the absolute sense. They now depend on perceptions of who says what and why, a relative condition. The country is obsessed with decoding a scratchy tape to ascertain whether Mr. Zimmerman said “cold, coons, goons, or punks,” with the idea that if the garbled word proves a racial slur, then we have the magical key that will supposedly unlock the case -- even as the late Travyon Martin self-identified himself with the N-word on his Twitter account and used it of his friends. No one can explain why Mr. Martin felt a need to so self-identify; no one seems to care; and no one can provide rules of the conditions under which (who says it, and when, why, how) society must deplore the use of such an epithet.
The writer is voicing a very familiar conservative complaint: Why do black people get to use the N-word and white people can't? If a word is bad one time, shouldn't it be bad all the time? Before you get too mad, keep in mind that Victor Davis Hanson is not alone. Dr. Laura asked the same question a couple years ago, though she made the mistake of doing so by saying the n-word a whole bunch of times. If you type "Can I say the…" in Google, the most popular search suggestion is "n-word," followed by the Lord's prayer and some pop song titles. In fact, a Google search of "Can I say the n-word?" is quite helpful, and Hanson should have tried it. There are tons of guides for white folks, offered by earnest writers for NPR and Time and tons of funny comedians. There's a whole book about it! We'd say the rules are pretty clear: if you're white, don't use the N-word. But even if Hanson thinks there's some blurriness left, there's a really, really clear-cut situation when you should not say the N-word, or any other racial slur, is when you're considering shooting an unarmed teenager who happens to be black.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.