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Column: The word, and the context

Should the Philadelphia Eagles have suspended or cut Riley Cooper, the former University of Florida star, for his use of the n-word at a concert this summer?

Opinions are lining up on either side, as Cooper lines up for the Eagles' opening game tonight against the Washington Redskins. Critics say that anyone using the slur should be a pariah — not a starting wide receiver — in the National Football League. To the Eagles' apologists, meanwhile, Cooper's own apology was enough to justify putting him back on the field.

They're both wrong. The Eagles should indeed have punished Cooper, but not simply because he said a bad word. Instead, they should have punished him for the bigoted context in which he said it. After a dispute with an African-American security guard at the concert, Cooper said, "I will jump that fence and fight every n----- here."

Captured on video and beamed across the internet, Cooper's remark is hateful at its core. It clearly links the guard's allegedly poor behavior to his race; even more, it associates other people who share the guard's race with that same behavior.

And that's been a defining formula for white racists for the past four centuries: If you're angered or frightened by a black person, trot out the n-word. That's why South Carolina Sen. Benjamin Tillman threatened to kill "a thousand n-----s" after famed black educator Booker T. Washington dined at the White House in 1901. And it's why, a half-century later, Georgia's Eugene Talmadge swore that "n-----s will never go to a school which is white while I am governor."

It's also why white players in the Philadelphia Phillies' dugout told Jackie Robinson, "We don't want you here, n-----." And it's why a white baseball fan wrote to Hank Aaron that "we don't want no n----- Babe Ruth" when Aaron was on the verge of breaking Ruth's home run record in 1973.

But not everyone who uses the n-word does so in a malicious or insulting way. Consider Keith Dambrot, whom you might remember as LeBron James' high school basketball coach in Akron, Ohio; now he coaches at the University of Akron. But you probably don't know that Dambrot was fired from a previous coaching job, at Central Michigan University, for using the n-word.

During halftime of a 1993 game, Dambrot — who is white — asked his players for permission to say the n-word. The players assented, so Dambrot said, "We need to be tougher, harder-nosed, and play harder. ... We need to have more n-----s on the team."

Dambrot went on to laud one of the team's three white players as a "n-----" for his effort and hustle. He then categorized other members of the team as n-----s or half-n-----s: The former were giving it their all, while the latter needed to try harder.

Obviously, Dambrot was using the word as one of praise rather than of hatred. When word got out about his comments, however, none of that mattered. "The term is inappropriate under any circumstances," the university president intoned, shortly before Dambrot was dismissed.

Under any circumstances? Really? The president must not have heard much contemporary African-American music, where the n-word figures prominently. It has also led to a long internal dispute about whether that's crude and self-hating (see: Bill Cosby) or therapeutic and uplifting (to rapper Tupac Shakur, "N---a" stood for "Never Ignorant, Gets Goals Accomplished").

No matter where you come down on that debate, it's clear that African-Americans have sometimes employed the term to indict racism in American society. And so have whites. Consider Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which uses the word "n-----" more than 200 times.

Anyone who has studied the context of the novel — or of Twain's essay Only a N-----, which attacks lynching — knows that he was deploying the word to satirize racial prejudice. But that hasn't stopped parent groups from challenging schools that teach Huck Finn, which came in 14th on the American Library Association's list of the most-banned books of 2000-09.

If any use of the n-word is as bad as any other, we'd have to put Twain's words in the same foul bucket as Riley Cooper's. Ditto for Lyndon B. Johnson's now-famous quip about appointing Thurgood Marshall — not a lesser-known African-American — to the Supreme Court. "When I appoint a n-----," Johnson told an aide, "I want everyone to know he's a n-----."

You might not like Johnson's choice of words here, but it's clear that he was trying to give blacks a leg up. Just as clearly, Cooper was slapping them down. That's why the Eagles should have done more than just slap him on the wrist. At the end of the day, it's really not about the n-word at all. It's about who is using it, and how and why.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."

Column: The word, and the context 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 3:01pm]

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