Obama's Use of N-Word Launches Debate

Obama's Use of N-Word Launches Debate
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From ruminations in a garage about racial progress to an upcoming Charleston, S.C., eulogy, President Obama is eager to speak and laboring to be heard.

America’s first black president used a word so freighted and forbidden during an hour-long conversation with a podcast comedian last week that news media worked overtime Monday to dissect his meaning. Why did he use the word “nigger,” and did his language enlarge his audience or did it muddle his meaning?

It became a question posed on cable television, in the blogosphere, and at the White House daily briefing.

Q. Does he regret using the word?

Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “He does not.”

Q. He had to have known that it was going to get a reaction?

Earnest: “I don't think he was surprised by that.”

Allies in the African-American political community welcomed the overarching message but worried that Obama’s meaning had been hijacked by his use of a provocative slur to make a point about racism.

“The president was being the professor that he used to be,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., recalling a time when he himself used the N-word to teach American history, only to discover he’d reduced one of his students to tears because the word proved so toxic.

“I know that that word can be misconstrued,” Clyburn told CNN, adding that Obama’s overall context nevertheless made sense. “In the sound-bite world that we live in … you come away thinking it was inappropriate,” he added.

But Obama had not been sitting in a classroom or delivering a speech about race when he used the word. He was in a California garage during an hour-long conversation taped last week for a podcast called "WTF." Standup comic Marc Maron was approached by White House staff weeks ago to conduct an interview with the president, which Maron did on Friday and released Monday as “Episode 613.”

Earnest said the informality of an interview inside a memorabilia-crammed garage and the sprawl of questions contributed to the president’s street-slang comfort with recollections, explanations and ruminations.

“Racism, we are not cured of it,”  Obama said. “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 2- to 300 years prior.”

Although 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who is white, stands accused of killing nine African-Americans inside the South’s oldest black church last week, the president repeated his oft-stated belief that racial justice and tolerance are evolving for the better.

“I always tell young people, in particular, do not say that nothing has changed when it comes to race in America, unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s or ’60s or ’70s,” he said during the WTF interview. “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours.”

For Obama, there are few subjects as personally digested, and yet officially complex. As a candidate and president, he values the politics of inclusion: one America. As president, he has not cracked the code in a polarized electorate, divided government, and political machinery powered by factions.

The generation he says he wants to reach, whether about race, guns, climate change, or the importance of political engagement, is predominantly in its 20s and 30s. He wants them to push for change.

“He said, `I want people to engage in the political process. I want people to get involved.’ That’s why he said he was using my show,” Maron told Slate.

On Friday, Obama’s language is sure to shift from garage candor to grandeur as he eulogizes the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, whom he knew, and eight other victims and their grieving families.

The N-word won’t be the last word he’ll have on the subject.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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