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Reclaiming the “N Word” 

P.C. police bar a discussion on race

Thursday, May 12 2005
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We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes —
This debt we pay to human guile.
—Paul Laurence Dunbar

The resignation of University of Oklahoma baseball coach Larry Cochell for using a racial epithet to describe a black ballplayer places the 65-year-old white coach in an infamous pantheon of sports notables who’ve choked on their own shoe leather.

Who can forget the great Paul Hornung, who recently said that Notre Dame should lower its standards to snag more black ballplayers? Not that plenty of big-time college programs haven’t done exactly that. Or the avuncular Al Campanis, proclaiming on Nightline in 1987 that blacks “lack the necessities to be managers or general managers in baseball.” All from a man who supposedly was a good friend of the great Jackie Robinson, and who signed many black players. And the venerable pontifex-maximus of Las Vegas oddsmakers, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, forthrightly stating — again on TV — that “blacks were bred to be better athletes than whites.”

Now comes Cochell, who, in an interview with ESPN’s Gary Thorne and Kyle Peterson, paid a left-handed compliment to freshman outfielder Joe Dunigan III: “There are honkies and white people and there are niggers and black people. There’s no nigger him.”

Many black ballplayers came to Cochell’s defense, including the father of the ballplayer he spoke about. But it didn’t save Cochell from public opprobrium, and, like Snyder and Campanis, a speedy exile to oblivion.

But let’s hang on a minute here. The hypocrisy in America is monumental between what is allowed by our rules of civic discourse and what some white people say when they think the microphones are turned off — the harsh language of boardrooms, barrooms, even dinner conversations. The same palaver is bruited about quite freely, without fear of exposure by the P.C. police. Let’s not get self-righteous. Let’s talk about race — openly, and without getting down on someone with a loose mouth like Cochell’s.

It’s been called “the most vile of epithet,” “the ultimate insult,” a word so terrible that it’s now standard practice to refer to it as the “N word.” I realize that I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that any of the above are true. I can think of more lacerating insults than being called a nigger. Maybe it’s because most of the people who have called me one haven’t been white folks. They’ve been blacks, and over the years, I’ve developed a thick skin to such quasi-insults from both whites and blacks.

Cochell is not a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan; I don’t believe that he has ever mistreated any of his black ballplayers. Just because he uttered this moth-eaten slur doesn’t make him a bigot. At most, he is guilty of bad judgment, and grandiose stupidity. Wouldn’t Cochell and the black folks he offended be better served if the coach had called a team meeting with the aggrieved parties and explained himself, offered a needed apology and been allowed to resume his career? Some meaningful dialogue might have taken place.



Honest dialogue is where it starts. It’s become standard practice by the praetorians of P.C. to pillory anyone who says something offensive or off-color. But that doesn’t do a damn thing to change the feelings or attitudes of the offending party. Nada. White people who refer to blacks as niggers in polite company are legion. And then there are white folks who are generally turned off by it. Instead of raking some white person over the coals because of his bad choice of words, I propose simply ignoring him. I’m calling on my black brothers and sisters to rise above the “vile epithet” and realize that the problem rests not in us but those who feel it necessary to try to demean us.

I’m also calling on the guardians of P.C. to do likewise. Don’t destroy the reputation of people because of their idiotic faux pas. A person who says nigger doesn’t tell you anything about the person who said it, and it’s not the time to come to blows or feel terminally offended. Even the redneck cops in law enforcement agencies, who try to bait you into a confrontation by calling you nigger (I’ve had this happen to me too, and played it cool as a master poker player) are dumbfounded when you let it run off your back. But these same coppers wouldn’t hesitate to go into a burning building to rescue some black children. Things are infinitely more complex than the P.C. police would have us believe.

Trying to initiate a brutally honest conversation about race among blacks and whites is like trying to pull an elephant up a hill with a string. Standard reactions include “Can we talk about something else?,” “I’m not prejudiced” and that timeworn phrase “Some of my best friends are black.” It’s all bullshit. We’ve all been tainted by prejudice, and it influences us all, in small and large ways. And yes, we all carry our own “nigger” around inside of us, like it or not. He’s there, plenty of them among the black upper classes, and still more among white folks of all stripes. He’s a vague, abstract creature who has many faces. And until white and black folks get over their unwillingness to talk about their dark traveling companion, and feelings about racial issues, we will always inhabit two worlds, gazing at each other across a chasm.

Black America has more pressing problems than worrrying over an ancient slur. But there is hope. As Randall Kennedy states in Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word: “Still, despite these costs, there is much to be gained by allowing people to yank nigger away from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert the ‘N word’? . . . from a negative into positive appellation.” This has already happened thanks to Hollywood. When Denzel Washington refers to Ethan Hawk as “my nigger,” in Training Day, or when Ving Rhames? asks Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction “Is you my nigger,” it’s a term of friendship. Maybe, just maybe this vile epithet will lose its sting, and we’ll all get over it.

In the meantime, let Larry Cochell play ball.

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