Making a Point, Obama Invokes a Painful Slur

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President Obama exiting Air Force One in San Francisco on Friday. The comedian Marc Maron interviewed the president for an episode of his podcast that was released on Monday. Credit Zach Gibson/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — It was a single word, just six letters long, but one that has not been spoken by an American president in public for generations.

President Obama invoked the word “nigger” in a podcast interview released on Monday to drive home his point that slavery still “casts a long shadow” on American life. But in the process, he touched a raw nerve in a country struggling to confront racism and hatred in the days after nine black parishioners were killed during Bible study in a South Carolina church.

“We’re not cured of it,” Mr. Obama said of racism during an interview for a “WTF With Marc Maron” podcast. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.

For part of the hourlong conversation with Mr. Maron, the nation’s first black president patiently explained that race relations had improved in his lifetime. But in acknowledging that racism is still deeply embedded in the United States as a “part of our DNA,” Mr. Obama turned to a racially charged word. His use of it quickly became the focus of daylong commentary online and on cable news.

Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, condemned the president’s use of the term, calling it a “disparaging, hateful” word that should never be uttered, even by artists or poets who say they are seeking to change a word of hate into one of love. Nor should it be used, he insisted, by presidents trying to teach a nation a lesson.

“I got called that name numerous times,” Mr. Morial said. “It led to fights. It never is appropriate to use it.” Mr. Morial praised Mr. Obama for his willingness to talk about racism, and he said he did not think the president intended to offend anyone. But he said the word was no better than the Confederate flag or the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It ought to be retired from the English language,” he said. “Put it right next to the flag, in a linguistic museum. It belongs with the flag. It belongs with the hood.”

For a nation in mourning over the killings last week at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the president’s use of the word echoed loudly. And after a year of several high-profile, fatal confrontations between the police and African-Americans, Mr. Obama’s comment seemed intended almost as an exclamation point on a topic he now turns to frequently.

“I think he’s being provocative,” said Ishmael Reed, an author and poet who has written extensively on the African-American experience. “He’s got a short time to be president, and I think he’s letting his hair down. You have to raise the decibels in order to be heard.”

Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, said Mr. Obama had not planned to use the word when he sat down with Mr. Maron, a comedian who records his popular podcast from his garage in Southern California. But Mr. Earnest said Mr. Obama was not surprised by the reaction to a word that has long conjured images of lynchings, oppression, bigotry and discrimination, while becoming unmentionable in most parts of public life.

Mr. Earnest called Mr. Obama’s use of the word “notable,” even provocative. But Mr. Earnest said the president had used the term to make an argument “that is familiar to those who have been listening.”

Mr. Obama will have another opportunity to be heard on Friday, when he delivers the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, who was among the nine people killed there.

Mr. Obama has been far more open about the issue of race during his second term, in part because of incidents that have forced Americans to confront the depth of anger and frustration among some blacks, especially about their treatment by the police. The president reflected openly about race after protests that followed recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police. In 2012, he said that if he had a son, he might look like Trayvon Martin, the black teenager from Florida who was killed by a member of a neighborhood watch group.

Early in his White House tenure, Mr. Obama started a mentoring program for young, black men. But he has shown increasing eagerness to discuss the evolution in his own thinking about racial identity and the country’s difficult racial struggle.

Mr. Morial said such a shift seemed inevitable. “Every president, towards the end of their term, when they are freed of the straitjacket of having to think every moment of the day about what is required in the election, can think about the country, about their legacy and about the more difficult issues,” he said.

The interview with Mr. Maron was a wide-ranging conversation about race, including a discussion about how Mr. Obama grew up as the son of a black father and a white mother. He talked about being a rebel during his youth and “trying on” different personas as he struggled to understand what kind of African-American man he wanted to be.

“I’m trying on a whole bunch of outfits,” Mr. Obama said. “Here’s how I should act. Here’s what it means to be cool. Here’s what it means to be a man.”

He said that a lot of his anguish when he was young “revolved around race” but that his attitude changed around the time he turned 20. He said he began to understand how to honor both sides of his racial identity.

“I don’t have to be one way to be both an African-American and also someone who affirms the white side of my family,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have to push back from the love and values that my mom instilled in me.”

Mr. Obama began talking about race and his upbringing when he wrote the memoir “Dreams From My Father” as he was about to begin his first campaign, for the Illinois State Senate in 1995. The word “nigger” appears 19 times in the book, often as a way to explain the kind of language that he heard as he grew up.

In the interview, Mr. Obama made clear that he thought further progress would come slowly.

“Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to three hundred years prior,” he said.

Source: The New York Times

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