Monday, May 29, 2006

Racism and the "N" Word

We fool ourselves if we believe racism is no longer a problem in our communities, our nation and, yes, even in our churches.

I run into evidence of persistent racism and racist attitudes frequently.

The "N" word is alive and well in our culture.

I watched a debate last Saturday on CNN about the use of that offensive term. The debate arose in response to a defense attorney's argument that his white client, on trial for beating an African American person, could not be accused of committing a hate crime simply because he was shouting the term during the attack. The man's lawyer referenced the frequent use of the term by black people in daily speech and in popular music, calling it a "term of endearment."

As a white person, I can never see the term as anything but evil. When I hear it, I cannot remain silent, nor can I ignore it.

I know and I remember where the word came from.

There was nothing endearing about Jim Crow laws and culture.

Racism is evil. Always.

And, let's be clear. Racism is not the same as simple prejudice.

Racism is personal prejudice coupled with the power to impose the determinations of that prejudice on others and on the community. This is the story of Jim Crow.

It is out of this power matrix that the "N" word originates. It is around hateful power that it does its unjust and evil work. Don't be fooled about the importance of this word.

Take a look at this very powerful website:

Be sure to view the photographic "Intro."

Be prepared to be reminded of the reality of America's past. And, remember the powerful images the next time you hear the ugly word.

There is never a joke here.

I pray you won't tolerate its utterance.


RC said...

You redeemed yourself with this post. I just can't deal with Borg. When the guy gets through with Jesus there is nothing left. You just gave one of the best definitions of racism as contrasted with prejudice. It really is all about power. Right now I am doing some interim preaching for a church that is pretty diverse racialy, but the power is still almost totally in the hands of whites. It will be interesting to see if they can make the shift to a diversely led church, and if they do will the white people stay? As a white person I must admit that we are pretty stupid sometimes.

owldog said...

Larry, you say you do like or allow that word. With the diverse population you work with and the young black adults that use that word often when talking to each other, do you say something to them about that word and if you do what is their response?

Larry James said...

RC, isn't it interesting that the people who "get Jesus right" don't seem to really understand his mission or his message, especially when it comes to the Kingdom of God? Borg, often characterized as a heretic and unorthodox, seems to have the best things to say about the authentic mission of Jesus. A bit ironic, don't you think?

Owldog, I don't like the word no matter who says it. However, when African Americans are talking to each other, I don't feel it is my place to intervene. However, I have had converstations with my black friends about what you describe. Most don't like to hear the word under any circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I almost always agree with you Larry, but I think that we have to be careful here. The use of the -n- word means something different to today's kids than it did a generation ago. If you listen to much of today's rap black music--Jay Z, Kanye West, etc. you will hear this word repeatedly. A big % of the sales of their work goes to young urban and suburban white kids. Taken in this context, you can well imagine that white kids are starting to call each other by this term, although one could make the case that it's actually a different word ending in -a rather than -er. It's meant as a term of affection. You can simply dismiss this music as vulgar, but I think if you'll listen you'll find what kids find appealing-- that there's a great of substance and honesty to this music. Moreover, the money kids are spending is at least creating more African American wealth (read: power) than would be the case if the kids were listening to rock or even contemporary Christian music. Maybe this money will help create legitimate power bases in the next generation, much the same way that the Kennedys were able to parlay the money they made during prohibition into a political dynasty.

Despite the fact that I listen to a lot of this music, I would never use the term myself. However, I wouldn't be surprised if my kids do some day. If they do, and it means something different to them, than on the whole I have to see it for what it is: white kids learning and caring a whole lot more about black culture than I ever did. Heck, I'm old-school enough I'll probably yell at them anyway.

RC said...


I don't think it is ironic. I think it is crazy. This guy is so off the map that I don't care what he says, and I mean that. Paul, who I hope you wouldn't accuse of a faulty Christology, makes it plan that without the resurrection we are "of all men most to be pitied." If all we have is the here and now, and from reading Borg I don't know how he would conclude anythig else, then what is the point. He reminds be of Bultman, who sounded like a revival preacher when he preached, but really believed little true about Jesus. Thanks for the freedom to speak. In my words about Borg I don't want you to loose sight of how much I agree with your words about racism. You were dead on.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Borg. I have read Paul. I don't agree with everything Paul said, and have some problems with a lot of what he did to the church.

But that's probably a subject for a future blog. This one is much more important.

Interesting how we can get off on useless/futile Scripture debates and lose sight of the real issue in front of us...

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Borg understands the authentic mission of Jesus or not but he denies that Jesus was the Son of God and the Bible as the word of God. I would be careful about believing anything he said.

Anonymous said...

And yet you would not question believing the words of someone you have never met, which he actually did not write . . . but which his followers wrote down many years after his death? Words that have been altered and edited and politicized and corrupted throughout millenia to suit the needs and whims of the powers that be?

Interesting what people choose to believe.

Anonymous said...

The heart of the Christian religion is the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and the Bible is the word of God. If one doesn't believe that then why profess to be a christian?

Larry James said...

Anonymous 8"46 p.m., in my view there will never be an acceptable time for white people to ever use this word. Black folks can instruct me about its use by them and among them, but because of its history and the part whites have had in making it and its pain, injustice, torture, murder and death, it will never be appropriate for use by white people. Out of respect and a commitment to reconcilitation, I cannot see a time when its use would be justified.

Part of the "debate" I might have with my younger black friends about this word is its history and what it signified and indicated about the state of our society and its racist character. To use it with ease in popular speech or in music and then to pass it along to white kids with an implicit justification for its use is a bad development in my view. Too much is lost in terms of memory and too much is allowed in terms of continuing hatred.

To me, the use of this word in popular culture is much like the use of demeaning, derogatory language toward women by women. The brutality and the disrespect is not only still present, it is lifted up as somehow worthy of appreciation as a work of art.

I cannot accept this sort of cultural justification for the use of this horrible word.

KentF said...

To me, the worst form of racism is covert, not overt. Like virtually every city in Texas, the minority representation of the leadership/board of directors at local banks, hospitals, school boards, and certainly churches, don't equate to the same ethnic mix in my city.

Go to virtually any church in the Bible-belt and see how many African American deacons, elders or ministers that church has today. To my knowledge, the church I grew up in Abilene has never had an African American deacon.

Sean Palmer, a young dynamic African American preacher in Houston that graduated from ACU says he would have a brief phone interview for a pulpit position and as he walked in the door to interview the elders in person they literally had to pick their jaws up off the floor. After a brief 3-5 minute chat - Sean said they always handed his resume back to him! Not even a we'll keep your resume on file for future reference. And, this is within the past decade - not 40 years ago.

I think racism is alive and well in all areas, and is largely being covered over these days - and not much more.

Anonymous said...

KentF - You bring up a very important point. If racism is alive and well in the Church, just think how bad it is in the world outside of church! If Christians - or even Deacons and Elders for that matter- are so overtly racist or prejudiced, we certainly can't rely upon them to set an example for the nonbelievers. Racism and prejudice will not be destroyed until we, as Christians, practice our faith instead of showing up at church in a nice suit and pay lip service to what we profess to be our calling in faith. Just my thoughts... nothing "earth shattering".

David D.

gautami tripathy said...

Glad I am here! I like what you write. Racism is so common in my country too. and however much we rationalise, it is very demeaning.

Prejudices are so strong that it feels will they ever go?

Larry James said...

Gautami Tripathy, I am glad you are here too! Where do you live? I hope you will return!

Charles Senteio said...

This debate, while important, makes me chuckle…. especially when white folk sit around and discuss it. Of course the word is important, but let’s keep things in perspective. Why are we so susceptible to diversion? In the next few weeks this country’s most influential policy makers will debate gay marriage and the desecration of the flag. Both important issues but where are our priorities?

When the N-Word debate becomes a more important issue than what the following factoids represent, I’ll spend time and emotion discussing it. I just think there are far more important issues rooted in race and class we face:

Black people on average live 5 years less than white people in this country. If we cut the data by gender the gap crows considerably.

People earning $15,000 or less annually are three times as likely to die prematurely as people earning more than $70,000 per year.3

In Dallas County the infant mortality rate for black kids is five times that of white kids.

700,000 people in Dallas County don’t have health insurance

Every year more black men earn their GEDs, a large proportion in prison, than earn bachelor degrees.

People without a high-school diploma, as compared with college graduates, are three times as likely to smoke

UCLA’s incoming freshman class will have 96 Black freshman, 20 of whom are recruited athletes. That’s the lowest total and proportion since 1973.

For the record, Mark Furman brought the “N-Word” mainstream. I use the N-Word, but almost never around white people. I’ve heard my dad use the N-Word, but never around white people. It gives them license at best, an excuse at worst, to use it around us. For black folk, I have no issue with us using the word. Eliminating words has always stuck me as wrong. I do have an issue with us using it in front of white folk. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past few days. I can’t recall being around black folk who use this word in front of white people. If they did I probably would say something to them and share my view.
No white folk, you never have the right to use this word and the “well they use it around each other so why can’t we?” argument is just plain silly. Most Black folk, either on a rap song or at the barber shop, use the word in a positive sense as do I… most of the time. Yes this is the version that ends in “a”. How many of you have a ‘pet’ name for your spouses, kids that are only for your use? Would you feel comfortable if your best friend began calling your wife this same name?
If you do use the word be prepared to defend your actions. I got into my first fight in 3rd grade when in my majority white elementary school a classmate called me this. I spent a week in the principal’s office but wasn’t punished at home where the rules and expectations were always exponentially more demanding. I still dislike this kid. Today I can throw, and take, a punch (and kick) much better. In the 30 years since no one has called me this most ugly of terms within my earshot. Even with my maturity, education, and enlightenment since that day on the playground I’m not sure if I’d have a different response today.

Larry James said...

Charles, thanks for, as always, the insightful post.

I like what you say.

Just one last point: all of the really crucial realities that you mention that are the key issues are the very reasons why to me, a white guy, the N-word conversation is a must. The fact that it has been around so long and still is explains in large measure why there has been so little movement on the terrible metrics you rightly report.