While having a discussion about racism on a podcast called “WTF with Marc Maron,” President Barack Obama used the word “nigger.” And it’s perfectly fine. The president was making a valid point about racism when he dropped the n-word. “Racism, we are not cured of. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior,” he said.
This is an intelligent man making a nuanced statement about modern day racism. However, some of Obama’s right wing detractors take issue with him using the word at all. Fox News pundit Elizabeth Hasselbeck thinks it is inappropriate for a president to use that word, and she’s concerned he might use it in a public address.
“I think many people are wondering if it’s only there that he would say it. And not, perhaps, in a State of the Union [address] or more public address if he’s only doing this because he’s in the — quote — podcast, that he felt safe to do it there,” said Hasselbeck.
The former The View co-host’s “concern” suffers from a complete lack of merit. President Obama was making a statement about racism when he said “nigger;” he was not referring to a person nor was he condoning the use of the word. It’s hard to have a conversation about a word and not use the actual word. Saying “the n-word” is sometimes not enough. He used uncomfortable language to make a powerful and true point.
Hasselbeck should be able to sleep soundly knowing that Obama will not be giving shout outs to “all the niggas who ain’t here” at the next State of the Union address before he pours out a little bit of a 40-ounce beer. Another Fox contributor, Deneen Borelli (a black woman), blames rap music. “He has really dragged in the gutter-speak of rap music. So now he’s the first President of rap, of street? I mean, come on, he has lowered the stature of the high office of the President of the United States. The President-in-chief, the rapper-in-chief now, is further dividing our country,” said Borelli.
Shout out to the people outraged that the president said "nigger" once but don't care about the countless times he's been called it since 08
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 22, 2015
From the way Fox talking heads are framing it, one might think that Obama spit a verse on a “Trap Queen” remix instead of offering a nuanced conversation on a podcast. Context matters. The president’s critics are desperately seeking to find anything to criticize him about, and they have come up short on this one. Any reasonably intelligent adult who listened to the podcast or read the transcript could understand that Obama was not just using a “taboo” word for fun. He was making a point.
Additionally, if anything, President Obama’s statements help to elevate the stature of his office. To have a sitting president who offers intelligent, thoughtful contributions to a national conversation on race is a relatively new and welcome change. Twelve past presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives, and eight owned slaves while serving as president. The first movie ever screened at the White House was the overtly racist film Birth of a Nation in 1915. The Civil War era drama features performers in blackface acting out grotesque stereotypes of black people — black men as lusty, violent bucks and black people in general as lazy and vicious. President Woodrow Wilson praised the film, saying that it was like “writing history with lightning.”
Those are just a couple examples of the public words and actions about race from the White House — hardly useful for moving towards a more equitable society. Not to mention the private language of former presidents like Lyndon Johnson who frequently used the word “nigger” in reference to black people, according to numerous sources; and Richard Nixon’s n-bombs and “jigaboos” are immortalized by White House tapes stored in the National Archives. Nixon also talked about blacks being “genetically inferior to whites” on the tapes.
Those instances of past presidents saying “nigger” illustrate how context matters. LBJ and Nixon were using the word to be hateful and demeaning. President Obama said “nigger” to make a precise point about the reality of racism in action and the perception of how racism manifests. It is a vital conversation and one that Obama can contribute to in substantive ways.
As his last days in office draw near, Obama will likely get bolder in his public stances on important topics. “Drop the mic” moments will hopefully come often.
The official White House response to the podcast criticism is straightforward. According to Time Magazine, “Press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the President does not regret using the word and its use was justified in the context of his response on American race relations with host Marc Maron.”