A black president speaks about race and no one hears

After trying for years to be the temperate bridge builder on race relations, Barack Obama took the gloves off and deliberately used the N-word to show his concerns. Unfortunately, Neil Macdonald writes, that became the story, not the message.

Obama uses N-word in interview, but it becomes the story

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice-President Joe Biden, speaks to reporters about the church shooting in Charleston, S.C. (The Associated Press)

The president of the U.S. has finally used the N-word in public.

No, not the euphemism. He actually said the word "nigger."

"Racism, we are not cured of it," Barack Obama said in an interview with U.S. comedian Marc Maron broadcast on his podcast, WTF, Monday. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public."

It was a deliberate, calibrated reference.

The "N-word," now a fixture in American and Canadian English, is just a slippery proxy that allows the speaker to piously claim distance from and distaste for racist language while at the same time triggering the actual epithet in the listener's mind.

Just because we're not mouthing the word, Obama is saying, doesn't mean we aren't thinking it.

A week after the massacre of black worshippers by an overt white supremacist in a South Carolina church, Obama is finally trying to talk hard truth to Americans about racism.

"The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination" still exists in institutions, he said, and it casts "a long shadow and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on."

One suspects the president has been listening to some of the more depressingly stupid post-Charleston discourse, and just couldn't take it anymore.

Like the morning anchor on Fox News who claimed that church massacre in Charleston was an attack on Christians, rather than on blacks.

Or the many opinion leaders who have been insisting that this was a "tragedy" that "occurred," rather than an act of terror, which is what they would almost certainly have been shouting had the killer been anything but white and Christian.

Former Texas governor, presidential aspirant and handgun-toter Rick Perry actually called the shooting — in which a young white man joined an evening prayer service at an historic black church, made a bunch of racist comments and then shot and killed nine people — "an accident."

Tepid tone

Or maybe Obama was thinking of the South Carolina legislators who left the Confederate Stars and Bars, a flag that practically screams "We want Jim Crow back," flapping insultingly in front of the state legislature in Columbia.

Perhaps he just couldn't stand listening to the cowardly Republican presidential candidates who, eyeing the eventual primary in South Carolina, couldn't bring themselves to say it's time that flag was taken down.

"This is not a time to discuss that, this is a time to grieve, this is something for the people of South Carolina to decide," blah blah, blah.

Honourable exceptions: Mitt Romney and John McCain. Granted, neither has anything left to lose, but Romney, at least, opposed that flag even when he was running for president. McCain has said not demanding the flag's removal was one of the worst mistakes of his life.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, centre, attends a church service for the victims of Wednesday's shooting at Emanuel AME Church. (The Associated Press)

Barack Obama actually grew up black in America. He knows a thing or two about being judged by the colour of his skin, rather than the content of his character.

But he clearly also decided as a young politician that most white folks, at least the ones who live outside San Francisco and Massachusetts, aren't too keen on being lectured by a black man about race.

Hence the elliptical tone he's used to discuss race for most of his six-plus years in office.

After video surfaced during the 2008 campaign of Obama's former Chicago pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, shouting "God DAMN America," Obama was widely condemned by conservatives for not rejecting the old man outright.

He eventually had to publicly repudiate Wright who, by the way, had been talking about the Tuskegee experiment, in which the U.S. government, until 1972, deliberately left syphilitic black men untreated, just to see how they would deteriorate.

Could have been Trayvon

Obama has spoken out a few times since on race, but without much effect.

Take the time when Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by police who thought he was trying to break into what turned out to be his own home, then charged him with disorderly conduct.

Obama said merely "I think it's fair to say … the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home, and … there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

Pretty mild, no? But many Americans — especially law enforcement officers — were so outraged by the comments that Obama had to announce he regretted his remarks.

He then convened a feel-good "beer summit" between the white cop and the black professor at the White House. For all the good that did.

After an unarmed black youth in a hoodie named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida three years ago by a rather unsavoury character named George Zimmerman — Zimmerman was acquitted — Obama declared that Martin "could have been me 35 years ago."

(Sure could have, snickered some of his opponents.)

And as police across America killed one unarmed suspect after another in the past few years, most of them black, Obama tried to maintain his temperate tone, still evidently hoping to act as a human bridge, the son of a white mother and black dad.

That hasn't worked out too well either.

Trying to offend

So now, nearing the end of his second term, Obama has clearly decided to just state the obvious. At last.

There is no more powerful bully pulpit in America than the presidency, and on this particular topic, no one more capable of stirring serious discussion. Or so you would think.

The reaction? His remarks today made news. But tentative, nervous news, and probably not what Obama was hoping.

"Obama uses N-word," said CNN's gormless website headline. As though any further irony were needed, a graphic accompanying the audio of Obama's remarks substituted "n***r" for the word as the president spoke it.

An editor added the helpful warning that the article "contains language that some may find offensive."

Well, good. Hadn't anyone thought that maybe, for once, Barack Obama actually set out to offend?

A disclosure here: Some initial CBC News broadcasts chose to bleep out the word "nigger," too, actually censoring the U.S. president as he spoke about race.

The network's journalistic policy maven, David Studer, quickly sent out a missive: "While we normally don't use the word in our coverage, reports on this story need not bleep or disguise the word 'nigger.'"

The note, Studer explained later, was to "advise people to cease messing with the president's choice of words."

And maybe even listen to them. Although it's hard to imagine there won't be a certain type of South Carolinian smiling to himself, saying he never had a problem with the word in the first place.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.