This past summer, I was asked to testify as an expert witness in the case of Nicholas Minucci, who was charged with having committed a hate crime. In Bensonhurst, New York--which is notorious for its anti-black sentiments-- Minucci, who is white, had beaten a black man with an aluminum baseball bat. When Minucci initially approached this man (whom he suspected of being a car thief), he reportedly said "Whattup, nigga." Prosecutors portrayed that language as evidence of a racial motivation for the ensuing violence. The defense asked me to testify, because they felt my book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, would support their argument that "nigga"--or its older variant "nigger"--can have a wide variety of meanings. They argued that, in hip-hop speak, "nigger" can be part of a neutral or even friendly salutation and that Minucci had adopted the argot and gestures of hip hop through close interactions with black youngsters in high school.
I initially resisted the defense attorney's request. I was busy at the time and also knew that, especially as a black man, I would receive sharp attacks from those who would wrongly perceive me as actually siding with the defendant (as opposed to merely offering expert testimony regarding an abstract proposition). But I finally decided to say on the witness stand what I had already put into print--that the N-word and its usage are more complex than is sometimes initially appreciated. Although "nigger"--derived from "niger," the Latin word for black--has been understood as an intensely derogatory insult since at least the early nineteenth century, more recent usages, particularly those created by the black community, have expanded its meaning.
But, if the N-word is so complex, how do we evaluate the case of Senator George Allen, the most recent high-profile N-word offender? He has been accused of repeatedly referring to blacks as "niggers" during his college years in the 1970s. Given my interest in the history of "nigger," I was, of course, captivated by this recent illustration of that term's troubling presence in American culture. Allen does not deny that referring to blacks derogatorily as "niggers" would have been terribly wrong. He swears, though, that he did not and does not use such language. The Washington Post quotes Allen as saying, "That word was not a part of my vocabulary. ... It is not who I was, and it is not who I am. It is contrary to every fiber of my being."
I don't believe Allen's denial. His accusers, including Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, are credible. Moreover, his conduct fits all too well into a pattern that includes ostentatious disregard for the sensibilities of colored Americans--including his past embrace of Confederate insignia, his opposition to a Virginia holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and his recent outburst (fortunately caught on videotape) in which he referred to a man of Indian descent as a "macaca"--a term he was clearly using for purposes of denigration. But, once we accept the fundamental fact that Allen did use the word, we have to move into the punishment phase of his case. This raises the question: Can a white politician, in twenty-first-century America, ever recover from having used the N-word in his past?
There is no doubt that the N-word is presumptively offensive. Writing in 1837, Hosea Easton remarked that "nigger" had become "an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race." Before and since, embedded in angry shouts and nasty jokes, "nigger" has provided gut- churning accompaniment to countless acts of racially motivated violence, intimidation, and humiliation. But, like any symbol, "nigger" can be put to various uses. More recently, it has been deployed to mock racism. This is what the black comedian and social activist Dick Gregory was up to when he titled the first (and best) of his memoirs Nigger: An Autobiography. The N-word is also often used as an ironic gesture of solidarity. Engaging in a form of rhetorical jujitsu, many young blacks have defiantly appropriated "nigger" for their own use, which animates the ongoing insistence of many champions of hip-hop culture that, properly used, there is nothing wrong with their N-word. "Nigga," the rap icon Tupac Shakur once proclaimed, is a perfectly acceptable term of self-identification that stands for "Never Ignorant, Gets Goals Accomplished."
Given hip hop's crossover appeal, it was only a matter of time before the issue arose as to whether whites (or other non-blacks) could also permissibly use non-racist versions of "nigger" or its variants. One response was to assert that, while blacks could use the term for purposes of in-group humor or camaraderie, "nigger" is completely verboten to whites. Propounding this position, Michael Eric Dyson maintains that "[n]igger has never been cool when spit from white lips." Another response was a renewed effort to stigmatize all usages of "nigger," regardless of speakers' racial identities. Hence, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution urging all citizens to refrain from using the N-word for any reason, a position also embraced by the recently established website abolishthenword.com.
But justifiable disgust with racist usages of "nigger" has sometimes led people astray. Every year, controversies arise from efforts to exclude books from public school curricula just because they contain references to the term "nigger." All too often, in censoring books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, opponents of exclusion evince no interest whatsoever in recognizing important distinctions that differentiate racist from non-racist (or even anti-racist) deployments of the N-word. Then there was the infamous episode in which local government employees in Washington, D.C., clamored for the resignation of a high-ranking supervisor who used the term "niggardly," even after being informed that that word (which means stingy) is wholly unrelated to the notorious N-word.
It's a sign of progress that referring to blacks as "niggers" is now, almost everywhere, a form of political suicide. Recall that, until the '60s, politicians in some locales openly used "nigger" in its derogatory sense without fear of adverse political repercussions. We have traveled some distance from the time when, in Mississippi in 1964--during a successful gubernatorial campaign--Paul Johnson repeatedly joked that the acronym naacp stood for "Niggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums." The publicity about Allen and the N-word has rightfully hurt him politically. His once-commanding lead over his Democratic challenger, Jim Webb, has shrunk considerably, as has his standing as a potential presidential contender in 2008.
What makes Allen's past use of the N-word particularly reprehensible is that he lies about it. I'm sure that there are those who fear that contemporary disgust with racist usage of "nigger" is so intense that a politician in Allen's shoes cannot be honest without sacrificing entirely his political future--a sacrifice some might see as so disproportionate to the initial distant infraction as to justify the "white" lie of false denial. But the revelation that a politician used "nigger" at some point in his past should not doom him or her automatically and terminally to political perdition. People do change. People do make mistakes that they sincerely regret and from which they really do learn. Moreover, it is good policy to encourage honesty and reformation by holding open the prospect of redemption. Most fair-minded voters, regardless of racial identity, will accord respect to a candidate who comes clean about his use of the N-word, who apologizes for it, and who is also in a position to say that his public record offers strong evidence of a genuine repudiation of his previous bad acts. This is exactly what George Allen has refused to do. He has not come clean about his bigoted vocabulary. He has thus prevented himself from apologizing for it. And his public record is not one that offers any sensible basis for believing that he takes seriously the moral and legal injunction to accord to all persons equal respect, regardless of race.
But perhaps he doesn't have to. After all, his defeat is by no means certain. Leading Republicans have withheld public repudiations of Allen, and conservative commentators have largely portrayed the junior senator from Virginia as merely a victim of "liberal" media. Allen's incumbency, with its winks, code words, and hollow denials, is a bitter reminder that the attitudes that inform and attend the primary historical meaning of "nigger" remain all too evident, even in the highest circles of the U.S. government.
Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University.
This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.