This story has a number of important elements to it. Black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, are encouraging all segments of the entertainment industry to stop using the racial slur “n—-r.”
First of all, I think this is a step in the right direction. The argument goes that, when blacks call each other that, it takes the sting from it. As we saw with Michael Richards’s tirade, however, that simply isn’t the case. A black person saying “n—-r” puts the word out there without decreasing its white-person-uttered impact.
Also, Jesse Jackson veers into reparations debate territory with this quote: “We want to give our ancestors a present…dignity over degradation.”
But the fact of the matter is that we can’t give our ancestors anything. They’re dead. The only people this move can help are our children, and that’s an equally worthy “present.”
Finally, there is a double misunderstanding when people asked about free speech issues, and when Jackson responded “n—-r” is “unprotected.”
First of all, this is not a free speech issue. Jackson is not saying the government should stop people from using the word. He’s encouraging them not to, which is within his free speech rights.
Second, Jackson is right that there are limits to what kind of speech is allowed. The First Amendment primarily protects political speech, not obscenity or often commercial speech (cigarette and alcohol ads, for example, can sometimes be banned). Hate speech is a murky area — sometimes it can be banned as fighting words, but when it isn’t likely to incite violence, well, the court hasn’t really hashed that out.
It’s an overstatement, then to say that the N-word is flat-out “unprotected.”
Robert VerBruggen blogs at http://robertsrationale.blogspot.com.