It’s been quite a week for racist symbols. It took the murder of nine black churchgoers at the hands of a killer steeped in Confederate and apartheid logos and logic, but politicians have started removing rebel flags and other symbols of Dixie from places we’d thought they were nailed to (like Alabama’s capitol grounds, and South Carolina’s, where the Stars and Bars will need a two-thirds majority vote of both houses to come down).
There is even an “Et tu?” quality to the defenestration, since it has often been Republican politicians and corporations like Walmart who have suddenly realized that these symbols can be hurtful “to some.”
And the Charleston murders have galvanized a US president to publicly say the n-word to explain why not ever saying it in public does not magically end racism—anymore, he might have added, than electing a black president does. As President Obama said on Marc Maron’s WTF 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. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to three hundred years prior.
Likewise, racism doesn’t vanish by deleting the Confederate flag or statues of Jefferson Davis from public property. It’s good that government institutions shed them, just as it’s good that white people refrain from casting racial slurs. But the danger, of course, is that we won’t move beyond treating civil rights as an exercise in symbol management.
Clearly, symbols reflect a society’s history, and the Charleston murders changed ours. In fact, you have to ask if Dylann Roof had not been photographed sporting white-supremacist tags and the battle flag of Northern Virginia, would we even be talking about taking down the flags now?
We all think in symbols—they’re fundamental to language—but the right, in its arthritic aversion to progressive political correctness, seems particularly prone to interpret symbols as narrowly as possible. When your favorite media, for instance, train you to wear blinders and to ignore context, you might be able to will yourself to believe that the four little words “established by the State” tell you more about the intent of the Affordable Care Act than the hundreds of thousands of words surrounding them. With so many Republicans denouncing the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Obamacare and vowing to fight on, repeal-and-replace is well on its way to becoming the new Lost Cause.
And so when Obama used a bad word to discuss the complexities of racism, it jostled the conservative mind. The right couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see it in context.
“As a white American, my entire life I know that that is an electric word and you stay away from it,” Fox host Bill Hemmer said. “…this is something that we thought was entirely off limits and now you have the president using it.”
Two Fox & Friends hosts wondered if Obama’s going to start saying the word “in a State of the Union, or a more public address.” (A Wonkette headline: “Fox News Race Experts So Mad Obama Allowed To Use N-Word And They Aren’t.”)
On the other hand, it must be pretty annoying for Obama, when talking about racism, to be slammed for using the word that he’s so often been called. Like in this sign from a few years ago, outside the Georgia Peach Oyster Bar in Paulding County, Georgia.
Hauling words out of the woodpile is all part of Obama’s long-term scheme, Fox contributor Deneen Borelli figures: “This is all a distraction, grand distraction to take away from the people uniting and then the president in chief, the rapper in chief, now further dividing our country.”
Most of the distracting and dividing, however, was coming from Fox.
Their focus on Obama’s scandalous word choice diverted attention from stories on the flag, which itself is arguably a distraction from stories on gun violence, Roof’s place in white supremacist history, or institutional racism. That last, by the way, doesn’t exist, or so Monica Crowley and Bill O’Reilly agreed in an explosive yelling match with Kirsten Powers, who had the gall to say, yeah, it does.
Contextless media is hardly limited to the right. Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show went looking for centrist word police all this week. He was hilarious, for instance, showing Harold Ford Jr. demurring on Morning Joe that he wouldn’t have used that word to make the point the president made.
“Why?” Wilmore asked. “You’re allowed to use the word. Now thanks to H.R. 18852, The We Can Say It Act of 1968, black people and only black people can say nigger as much as we want…”
But like some others in lefty media, Wilmore pulled out the cooler-than-thou card, this time on CNN’s Don Lemon. At one point this week, Lemon had held up a Confederate flag and then a poster with the n-word spelled out, and asked if either was offensive. Aside from being humorless, how that’s different from the way Wilmore used the word, I don’t know, but it earned Lemon his ridicule.
Gawker was worse, asking readers to vote yes or no on: “Has Don Lemon Lost His Goddamn Mind?”
They posed the question without any backstory, like Lemon’s telling a guest, who said he was encouraging use of a racial epithet, “No, I’m not encouraging people to call people the n-word. I’m using it in historically. If you are—I’m a journalist.…. It’s not our job to sanitize a word.”
But Gawker readers, deprived of context, voted 74 to 26 that he had he had lost his goddamn mind.
Eric Wemple of The Washington Post put the Lemon episode back into context, concluding that “the anti-Lemon faction is attempting to lump the poster thing in with Lemon’s various instances of on-air stupidity. It doesn’t belong. What Lemon did is good TV and good journalism. Tiptoeing around the language of racist hatred helps no one.”
Fox’s response to Obama using the n-word was tinged with a familiar exasperation at having to think. Society’s E-Z rule for how to not be perceived as a racist—don’t ever say the actual n-word out loud—was being challenged, and as a corporate proponent of group-think, the network hates having to communicate a complicated message.
It’s a little like the settled hipster opinion of Don Lemon as a doofus. Or the (suddenly outdated) assumption that the Confederate flag stands for some kind of color-blind Southern heritage.
Now let’s focus beyond the word and the flag, and remove something even more insidious than Confederate paraphernalia—voter-suppression laws. Push to restore the Voting Rights Act.