The Paradox of Free Speech within the Context of White Supremacy

Kanye West was recently arrested for punching a man in his grill for calling his wife (Kim Kardishian) a nigger-lover. While it is up for debate as to the context in which the name-calling incident began, West settled out of court for roughly 250K of his hard earned cash.

Celebrities Kim Kardashian and Kanye West

(Image source) 

Although I fully understand that violence is not the answer, there is power in language. More specifically, there is power in the word “nigger” – used by white people and people of color for very different historical and bloody reasons. Yet, this powerful word gets used and protected in the U.S. by the first amendment to the constitution, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I will not be arguing to take away or strike down the first amendment. The first freedoms granted to the citizens of The United States are among the most beautiful and poignant expressions of individuality to date; however, there are exceptions to every rule. The government cannot abrogate your freedom of speech, unless you happen to be in a crowded movie theater (Schenck v. United States). Therefore, our freedom of speech has limitations.

Given the historical context of white supremacy from the Spanish Asiento to English culpability in the institution of African slavery in the American colonies, the modern use of the word “nigger” continues to carries with it collective memories of a violent and oppressive era.  It is because of this past that the use of this word by white people is unacceptable. No other word inflames the passion of black Americans more than the word “nigger” as it is a constant reminder of the debased status of blacks in the United States and justice that never fully materialized in our so-called post racial society.

Some white Americans, whether conscious or not, use the word “nigger” to provoke black Americans into confrontation. Marcus Smart, a sophomore basketball player at Oklahoma St. and a top 10 NBA prospect in the 2014 draft, dove into the crowd to save a ball during a game. As he stands and gathers his composure preparing to return to the court, a white man (who has been deemed the biggest Texas Tech basketball fan and was profiled by the team) yells a derogatory something at him.

Marcus Smart Confrontation with Fan

(Image source)

Marcus Smart turns around charges and shoved the fan. It is up for debate as to the specific words used—the fan swears he did not use the word “nigger”; Smart is adamant that “nigger” was used in his direction by the fan. Again, violence is not the answer and this is not a call for vigilante justice. I am, however, concerned with the ability for a person to wave a piece of meat in front of a lion and then claim the lion to be a savage beast when it attacks. For black people, the word “nigger” is the carrot on a stick; it is used in order to generate a reaction that will then have serious and real-world repercussions, not for the name caller, but for the one called names.

Smart was suspended for three games and forced to write a full apology to the fan; the same man that Texas Tech and the media framed as a lifelong and avid fan which may have in the past toed the line of obscene comments, but that has never crossed said line. Bullshit. They praise the one who used the language; they made the victim, yes, the victim of racist actions surrender without any humility; dehumanization.

The ability of some white people to shout a single word to enact such rage among such a large group, and then cry when said rage ensues, should be charged with a crime. I understand that personal judgment is subjective and does not hold weight in court, but the use of this word to tease black people into confrontation should not be legally sanctioned, by omission.

I don’t know the answer I am trying to get at; hell I don’t know the question. I do know that in this age of colorblindness even though overt racism is evermore present today than in the past, the school to prison pipeline at its strongest, and capitalism’s uncanny stranglehold on education has created a false sense of a post-racial America. This pseudo-post-racial-world that is being created in attitudes and minds of younger Americans but which is not actualizing and materializing in real life, has as much supporting theory as trickledown economics.

We are on a slippery slope that descends us back into pre-civil rights times. The ability to use language in this manner, as a carrot on a stick in which I will beat you once you reach for the carrot, is the same structure that was used to dehumanize the large swaths of people that have been systematically oppressed.

(W)e (T)he (P)eople, pertaining to whites only, can freely speak their minds without thought.

(W)e (T)he brown (P)eople must succumb to their freedom of speech embedded in White Supremacy.

~ R. Jamaal Downey is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can find him on Twitter at @RJamaalDowney


  1. Manju

    I can’t find any evidence confirming ‘Smart is adamant that “nigger” was used in his direction by the fan’.

    The story is odd.

    At the time that it occurred, various sources reported that Smart said the N-word was used. But none of those sources were Smart himself.

    The fan tweeted that he “said something he shouldn’t have”, but denied using the N-word. He appeared very apologetic from the get-go…which struck me as suspicious because, if his account were true, Smart would be the one in the wrong.

    So I figured he used the N-word or something equivalent and felt guilty, while simultaneously lacking the courage to admit it.

    But when Smart emerged, he was totally apologetic himself….and did not mention a racial slur. The audio is consistent with the fan’s story.. you hear “piece of crap” and nothing else. Witnesses did not hear a racial slur.

    So fine, all he said was “piece of crap” and for whatever reason he’s expressing remorse. But then he goes further and agrees to not attend games?

    Something’s amiss.

      • Manju

        Yeah, that article is what I’m referring to in above paragraph 3. A Radio analyst says he heard Marcus Smart say that he heard the fan say the n-word.

        But the evidence comes to us via the analyst, not from Smart himself…who doesn;t even confirm the accuracy what is being reported. Far from being “adamant that “nigger” was used “, he’s silent.

        • R. Jamaal Downey Author

          You are tapping into the larger issue at hand.

          Why is it that we don’t believe the victim’s words and look further for more ‘evidence’ but we trust the fan and believe him when he says that he did not use that word? It is my opinion to trust the visceral reaction of Smart in the moment and not the well-tamed contrite and as you put it, ‘silent’ young man that presented himself afterwards and denied that Orr used that word. As a young black man trying to market himself to NBA teams, Smart has to walk the line of being human and having reactions, and the person who can be a dartboard for racist slurs and not flinch. Speaking for myself, I would have backed down if I was Smart also due to what is at stake: his entire NBA career. This single NBA career could be enough to give his family to come the cultural capital needed to thrive for generations to come. It’s not only about the individual.

          This seems to be bordering on rape culture and victim blaming.

          Hell, by believing Orr and the other white folks around him, and only questioning Smart, we are showing how embedded the white racial frame is in our culture. We believe the superior white man and his allies over the instinctual black man and his reaction. The black man and his performance afterwards was as scripted as The Tempest.

          Asking for ‘evidence’ to confirm the use of the word nigger, more than Smart himself admitting in the moment, is aligning yourself with their interest and perpetuates a deficit model.


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