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.
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 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.