Part VI: Conclusion: Commercialism, Censorship, and Sensationalism: The Value of Exploring “Nigger”

Heretofore the work of burlesquing and caricaturing [was] performed by men with white bodies and blackened faces. But recently, to our astonishment and disgust, we learn that men, naturally black, have been induced through ignorance, lack of principle or sheer cupidity, to represent their own degradation and that of their unfortunate race.  

The blacks have a song which says, I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do.  

Racial hyperbole and drama sells political campaigns, social causes, books, and films. It can be linked to the loss of employment, housing, and even educational opportunities for blacks and, conversely has been a leveraging tool for whites. Like an untreatable cancer, the pernicious effects of racial stereotyping loom out of control; its sickly cell line appears often, and even in the least expected places: pre-schools, law schools, churches, and in government. Race sensationalism stands as possibly the most successful social motivator for moving Americans to action (outside of war). Consider perhaps the most *204 perverse demonstrations of blind loyalty to racial stereotyping and supremacy: lynchings. Figures vary as to the number of African Americans lynched by mob violence in the United States. Although, conservative estimates suggest thousands of lynchings occurred in the United States over the past one-hundred and fifty years, incontrovertible evidence reveals the troubling zeal to which white mobs attacked black bodies, including setting them to flame, removing testicles and other body parts for souvenirs, and even enjoying supper during these disturbing scenes.  

Racial demagoguery is not an exclusively white enterprise, however, as the domain of race rhetoric is an open enterprise available to Americans of all hues, ethnicities, and racial groups. Racial stereotyping among blacks can be as debilitating to an individual's self esteem, his or her ability to advance (if prevented by a fellow black engaged in “gate-keeping”), and may compromise healthy intra-and inter-cultural relationships. On the other hand, as Professor Kennedy all too eagerly points out, it can also lead to false claims of racial injustice. It is worth noting that insincere claims of racial injustice survive only through an atmosphere that maintains a constant hostility, therefore giving pause for considering the veracity of such claims.

Another form of black stereotyping is that which relies upon sensationalism for publicity and self-gain. Indeed, history is replete with examples of blacks choosing to profit in crude fashion from the “black experience.” Some publicly extol the virtues of assimilation, while pandering to race hypersensitivity (i.e., assailing and even conflating certain realities and exaggerating them community wide): the welfare queen, crack mother, crack seller, and black sexual deviant. Somehow, welfare mothers become central to debates on affirmative action in colleges and universities, rather than those who have benefited from such programs and have ascended to serve the nation as political advisors, university professors, and even judges in the highest courts.

Ultimately, this demonstrates that the black community is itself diverse, and not completely represented by a particular perspective or voice. The multiplicity of perspectives in the black community is a reality, and is generally positive for the betterment and growth of the larger community. Ideas cross-fertilized through dialogue and debate can enhance understanding and lead to the development of platforms to improve the economic, educational, political, and social position of black Americans. Yet, dangers can be found where the embers of racial hatred and propaganda are stoked for audiences motivated to cause political harm, impair social justice, or insight violence (psychological, physical, or emotional).

The common unifying reality for most black Americans is a history of involuntary servitude in the Western Hemisphere. Slavery not only profoundly shaped power relationships in the United States, but also shaped racial attitudes, legal rights, and citizenship status. Biological differences were inflated to justify slavery and ensconce the “centrality of whiteness” within the “dominant social *205 identity,” thereby conferring rights and privileges, and establishing an ideology promoting the superiority of whites, and the inferiority of blacks.  

Manning Marable's scholarship is insightful on this point.   He observes “race . . . becomes ‘real’ as a social force when individuals or groups behave toward each other in ways which either reflect or perpetuate the hegemonic ideology of subordination and patterns of inequality in daily life.”   Through this common reality of racial oppression and subordination, carried from slavery by most western blacks, and through the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, Jim Crow, the Dred Scott decision, an aborted reconstruction plan, racial segregation, and discrimination by blacks in the United States, they have a history which links them, whether they wish to be linked together or not.

There is no hope in breathing new life or meaning into the word “nigger,” nor in recasting the word, to lift from its animus and sting, and replace its killing power with neutrality, softness, and a plea for just getting along. To do so would seem virtually impossible in any case, because our racially divided society relies upon the scapegoat imaged in the N-word. Nonetheless, normalizing a hate-provoking epithet, whose meaning embodies dangerous stereotypes and the compromised citizenship of blacks, while affirming the racial supremacy of whites, will not somehow lift our post-emancipation blues and burdens. To the contrary, it promises that future generations will struggle against the projections of laziness, incompetence, indifference, criminality, and promiscuity, even while in law school.  

A book of only four chapters, Nigger is accessible and perhaps too easily read, given the legal, historical, and racial significance of its subject matter. Kennedy does not bother to complicate the book with qualitative research, surveys, illustrations, substantive history or the research of scholars who have studied at the intersection of race, education, history, anthropology and sociology. He informs us that through his research in an electronic legal database the frequency of the word's usage in America's court cases, which is *206 insightful, but does very little with organizing the cases, establishing a theoretical framework for analyzing them, or provide us with a substantive historical context. Readers might be better informed about whether the word's frequency in litigation is a more recent phenomenon or not, or if there was a peak during the Jim Crow era. As a result, some scholars, students and others who have read the book wonder: where is the rest of it?

The author's omissions are significant only to the extent that the book may be seen as credible, not for its capacity to educate us, but because of the author, his race, and his institutional affiliation. This is unfortunate and arguably unfair to Randall Kennedy, after all, in this way he experiences a subtle exploitation as well as his book. Perhaps unconsciously, he dons the “blackspert” hat, “[becoming] the impartial, black intellectual, commenting on our still benighted condition and as ready to criticize as commend.”   His accomplishments are not insignificant, as Professor Kennedy is a respected scholar, educated at Princeton and Yale Law School, a Rhodes Scholar, clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, and one of the few African American law professors at Harvard Law School.

However, donning the “blackspert” persona poses its own pitfalls and dangers. For example, one's message can be misinterpreted, exaggerated, or simply used for foul purposes to justify racist behavior. Consider the classic scenario, “I spoke with a black person (usually the new best friend) who said that using the word “nigger” in common speech is okay.” This has implications in other social dimensions, including gender, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity. Racial faux pas are writ with the “my best friend is black” defense, which somehow is interpreted as “he says that it is all right, therefore it must be alright and my behavior is not out of line.” Ironically, Scholl might have considered his conduct in line with Kennedy's mission.

Perhaps we are not supposed to take Kennedy's book seriously as a scholarly endeavor meant to enrich a broad audience, educate the populace, and advise on public policy (which arguably it attempts to do in the chapters Nigger in Court and Pitfalls in Fighting Nigger). Reflections on the book and its immediate aftermath are particularly timely in light of recent events at Harvard University and its law school.

Kennedy vacillates often on essential legal questions, including whether the N-word and others like it are “mere words.” Indeed, his position is not firm, as witnessed during our interview in front of a law school audience in Chicago, on February 15, 2002, where Kennedy suggested that perhaps there should be room for victims of racial harassment who have suffered the sting of racial attacks to sue their harassers.   Nevertheless, Kennedy was quick to remind the audience that he could and possibly would change his position on this.  

In fact, Kennedy seems to suggests that plaintiffs seeking civil redress from racial insults can burden the legal system and should seriously consider whether *207 they want to engage the judicial system in their plight as they may encounter overwhelming difficulties, including high costs, high stress and significant time delays. While his cautionary advice to victims of racial hostility might be insightful to all plaintiffs in civil litigation matters, he goes on to dissuade victims by reminding us that the First Amendment protects free speech. He also cautions that judges “fear trumped up charges . . . and infringements upon liberty in general, and more particularly, upon that guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”   

Racial oppression is a double-bladed reality or like a child's seesaw;   what was once up shall at some point come down, and when it falls, it is in a shared space, meaning that at some point each side is affected.


Michele Goodwin, J.D., Boston College Law School; LL.M., University of Wisconsin Law School.