Current events put the N-word — and U.S. history — on trial

Current events put the N-word — and U.S. history — on trial
Paula Deen found herself in a storm of controversy after she admitted to using the N-word. (Food Network)

Egypt roils with revolution, Edward Snowden has become the Scarlet Pimpernel of privacy and a new study reveals that, even though Americans are exercising more, we're still fat, which is really unfair. Yet for weeks we've been bombarded with minute-by-minute televised coverage of the George Zimmerman trial.

Testimony is parsed, questions are raised — "Why was his shirt not rumpled?" — witnesses reviewed like contestants on "American Idol," and every day sees way too much footage of Zimmerman, moon-faced and unsmiling in another suit.


All the while the attorneys, the judge and various pundits continue to insist that this trial is not about race. Which is simply ridiculous. If this trial isn't about race, then why on earth are so many news organizations live-streaming it? Because it's in Florida?

No, all the cameras are trained on the Seminole County Courthouse in the hopes that the fate of the man who killed Trayvon Martin will deliver some kind of definitive word on the state of race in America, a topic so eternally divisive that just bringing it up sparks controversy.

This is a country, after all, where Barack Obama is president and Kerry Washington graces the cover of Vanity Fair, where Quentin Tarantino can get an Oscar for mashing up the spaghetti western with blaxploitation film and say, with a perfectly straight face, that he wanted "to start a conversation about slavery."

We're way post-racism, right?

When the circumstances of Martin's death were made public, it was all about race. The first-run storyline — an armed, self-appointed neighborhood watchman followed, then confronted, then killed a young man he found suspicious because he was black and wearing a hoodie — prompted protests, commentary, even an odd but affecting message from President Obama, who said that if he'd had a son, he might have looked like Martin. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was evoked, which is never a good sign.

The trial, on the other hand, offers hope that the evidence will provide an alternate narrative. Even as "Fruitvale Station" enters theaters to remind us of another black man killed in recent years for no good reason, many want to believe that Martin's death was not simply an issue of color, that there were a host of other circumstances, and maybe we can stop talking about race in this country.

As if we'll ever be done talking about race in this country.

Like it or not, race is the real, true all-American conversation. Other countries have class and religion; the United States has race. It is this country's great experiment, the root of our one civil war, the reason for perhaps the biggest blot on our self-assigned badge of One Nation, Under God.

The fact that a Continental Congress made up of educated white men decided once upon a time to take over governing the country in which they lived is nowhere near as revolutionary as what that country eventually became — a land of universal suffrage where the demographics of the Founding Fathers are increasingly in the minority.

And every time we think we're done, that we can applaud our mixed race president, put Oprah on another power list and stand under a banner of equality for all, saying, like George W. Bush on that aircraft carrier, "Mission Accomplished!" something happens to prove that we're not even close.

For a month now, it's been the talk of television, starting, surprisingly enough, with Paula Deen.


Critics and essayists had barely finished recording their reactions to witnessing the unbridled racism depicted in "42," the inspiring film about Jackie Robinson, when it was revealed that the celebrity chef known for her Southern style was being sued by a former employee for creating a sexist and racist workplace. More important, when she was asked in court if she had used what is now commonly known as "the N-word," she had answered, "Yes, of course."

"Yes" was bad enough; "of course" did her in, especially when it was followed not by an apology but with the tale of how a black man once held her at gunpoint. As if that made her use of the word somehow excusable.

She subsequently apologized, but that word, combined with the story of how she contemplated creating a "plantation-style" wedding, shrunk her brand-based empire almost overnight. A person can get away with many things in this country but being asked by Matt Lauer if you are a racist is not one of them. Even if your answer is "no."

Riled up by what they perceived as a racist double standard, many cried foul, pointing to the casual use of the same term by black people, including famous musicians and comedians. Several came to Deen's defense, including Kevin Hart, who uses the N-word regularly in his new film, his stand-up act and even his tweets.

While the Supreme Court decided that a key portion of the Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary, prompting Garry Trudeau to resurrect Jim Crow in "Doonesbury," the Deen story stuck like, well, white on rice.

CNN convened "The N-word," an hour-long special featuring what looked to be the largest number of black men and women ever assembled by CNN. There were many problems with the show, including the fact that the guests were forced to seriously ponder whether the word "cracker," which Trayvon Martin apparently used to describe George Zimmerman during a phone conversation minutes before his death, has the same power as the word in the show's title.

Which, as many members of social media instantly pointed out, is so pejorative it could not be spelled out on national television.

More unnerving was that the show focused mainly on how black Americans use the word, as if we could take for granted that white Americans only say it by swapping the "er" for an "a" to make it a fond synonym for homie. If the emails I received after writing about Deen's appearance on "Today" are any indication, many white Americans still happily use the N-word as it was originally intended.

Which CBS discovered the very next day, when critics began calling for some acknowledgment that contestants were using racist, sexist and homophobic terminology during the 24-hour live streaming of the popular "Big Brother" series. Contestant GinaMarie Zimmerman, caught on camera saying the N-word, among other things, was fired from her job as a pageant coordinator and another participant had her modeling contract revoked after she used anti-Asian slurs. Critics demanded the producers include clips of this uglier side of reality in the broadcast version, which they eventually did.

Not so many came to GinaMarie's defense as came to Deen's, possibly because the "Big Brother" contestant is not grandmotherly and famous, but more probably because her transgression occurred right before so many eyes, reminding us of why even tough-talking journalists use the term "the N-word."

There is simply no uglier word because no other group of Americans has the history of institutionalized and violent oppression that African Americans have, and that word is a six-letter condensation of it all.


If we're so easily provoked to argument over our right to use a universally agreed upon racial insult, is it any wonder so much attention is focused on whose screams preface the shot that killed Trayvon Martin? The verdict takes on the shape of fulcrum, with a chance to swing the conversation one way or the other, to quantify in some way the question all of these conversations raise: Are black people still regularly and systemically victimized because they are black?

As if this were a question one trial, or one panel, or one president could answer.

Social change rarely comes in the form of a definitive; we cannot say we were once one thing and now we are another. History continues to happen, reaching out from the past through the cracks between the passing minutes. We built a land of freedom using slaves; we waved a banner of equality even as millions still bitterly fought to attain it, and no matter what our politics, we love a country that is as much dream as reality.

Conversations about race remind us of all that; it's easy to wish we were done. To achieve the revolution we started, we must live in the past, the present and the future, which is exhausting and impossible and the only reason any of this works at all.