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UGLIEST WORD UNDERCUTS THOSE WHO EMBRACE IT

When the NAACP announced plans to bury the N-word, I dismissed the ceremony as a meaningless, symbolic ploy and wondered: What other words do we need to bury?

But the N-word possesses a certain power we can't ignore. That reality slapped me in the face recently as my young daughter and I left our favorite public swimming pool. We overheard a boy talking tough to some older kids: N-word this and N-word that, he said with attitude.

He was only 12 or 13, tops. A skinny, dark-skinned boy who in some other time and place would have been the target of the very word he threw around so casually.

And if he'd been white, the older boys would have punished him with their fists for his limited vocabulary. Instead, they expressed no anger; there was no fight. The N-word is part of their everyday conversation, too. I was bothered by the casualness of it all, but they weren't.

I couldn't help myself. I spoke to the boy about self-respect, self-empowerment, then I walked away. I doubt my words carried much impact.

The NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, has its work cut out, I thought to myself.

Abel Bartley, a native Floridian who heads the Clemson University Pan African Studies department, understands the challenge. "The N-word has become part of our vernacular,'' he said, "from the professor to the pimp."

For centuries, the N-word has been the most hateful racial epithet hurled at people of color. Now many young folks use it casually without any idea of how much it still hurts those old enough to remember the bad old days. As one retired black educator told me, "the older we are, the more power it has."

No rap song, poem or lyrical novel can change that. Neither will a mock burial. That's why I'm not surprised so many folks are already dismissing the NAACP campaign as grandstanding. Why not focus on black-on-black crime, predatory lending, substandard housing or the educational underachievement of black students?

Those are pressing issues that need urgent attention. But the N-word is the symptom rather than the disease. For black folks to use the word, even in friendly conversation, is to condone when we should be outraged by the self-destructive, unproductive behavior around us: trash on the street, unemployment, drug peddling, promiscuity.

Don't get me started.

The NAACP needs to go deeper than 6 feet to bury the N-word. It's like taking a water pistol to war. It's going to take something far more radical than a ceremony; it's going to take generations. That's too big a job for the NAACP or any one organization.

It will take all of us.

This word is powerful. Failure to confront it demeans us all.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

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