March 17, 2006

The N-Word in the News Again

A March 12, 2006 article in the Denver Post (see here) describes a recent criminal case in which a 22 year old Black mechanical engineering student was walking in downtown Boulder with a female friend when a 38 year old Hispanic man with a record of 40 prior arrests saw the couple and yelled at them from his car, using the n-word and a string of profanities. The Black student yelled back: "If you have something to say, get out and say it." After the Hispanic man  proceded to break the student's jaw, he was arrested and charged with second-degree assault and ethnic intimidation.

The case went to trial and the jury  found the attacker guilty of assault but acquitted him on the hate-crime charge. The 12 juror panel was made up of mostly people in their 20s who reasoned that "nigger" was meant as an insult but not as a racial slur. They reported that younger people familiar with the hip-hop culture portrayed these days in film and urban music may not be aware of the racial implication and history of the term.

The jurors also gave some attention to the pronunciation of the word as "nigga," which they believed supportive of their argument. But this interpretation doesn't fly with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office,  which, for example, has twice rejected actor Damon Wayans' attempts to trademark "Nigga" for his proposed  hip-hop line of clothing. An act of Congress prohibits people from registering a word that is scandalous or that disparages a particular  group. The trademark office has a host of dead applications that tried to use the n-word.

I'm left with some confusion about what counts as racism these days. Sure, there is a pop-culture that uses this term perhaps more benignly that us old codgers can understand or appreciate. But at what point does the origin and continued broad meaning of an insulting, racial term become socially acceptable? To whom? By whom? Under what circumstances and context? And does dropping the final "r" in "nigga" really make it okay? Discourse context, register, phonetics, sociolinguistic variation, semantics, and the processes of language change all suggest themselves as relevant to this case. Maybe a linguist could have been helpful here.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 17, 2006 12:58 PM