Friday 26 June 2015

Obama says the N-word, stunning Americans

Mention of racial slur in public podcast touches raw nerve
The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2015

WASHINGTON - It was a single word, just six letters long, but one that had not been spoken by an American president in public for generations.

US President Barack Obama invoked the word "nigger" in a podcast interview released on Monday to drive home his point that slavery still "casts a long shadow" on American life. But he touched a raw nerve in a country struggling to confront racism and hatred days after nine black parishioners were killed in a South Carolina church.

"We're not cured of it," Mr Obama said of racism during an interview for a WTF With Marc Maron podcast. "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."

For part of the hour-long conversation with Mr Maron, a writer, director and comedian who produces regular podcasts of interviews with celebrities, the first black US president patiently explained that race relations had improved in his lifetime.

But in also acknowledging that racism was still deeply embedded in the United States as a "part of our DNA", he turned to a racially fraught word. His use of it quickly became the focus in the US of commentary online and on TV news channels.

Mr Josh Earnest, the President's Press Secretary, said Mr Obama had planned to use the word when he sat down with Mr Maron, who records his popular podcast from his garage in Southern California. But Mr Earnest said Mr Obama was not surprised by the reaction to a word that has long been a racial slur.

Mr Marc Morial, president of the civil rights organisation Urban League, condemned the President's use of the term, calling it a "disparaging, hateful" word that should never be uttered, even by artists or poets who say they are seeking to change a word of hate into one of love. Nor should it be used, he insisted, by presidents trying to teach a nation a lesson.

Mr Morial praised Mr Obama for his willingness to talk about racism, and said he did not think the President intended to offend.

For a nation in mourning over the killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the President's use of the word echoed loudly. And after a year of high-profile, fatal confrontations between the police and African-Americans, Mr Obama's comment seemed designed as an exclamation point on a topic he turns to frequently.

"I think he's being provocative," said author and poet Ishmael Reed, who has written on the African-American experience. "He's got a short time to be President. You have to raise the decibels in order to be heard."

Mr Obama has been more open about the issue of race during his second term, in part because of incidents that have forced Americans to confront the depth of anger and frustration among some blacks, especially about their treatment by the police.

Mr Earnest called Mr Obama's use of the word "notable", even provocative. But he said the President had used the term to make an argument "that is familiar to those who have been listening".

Mr Obama will have another opportunity to be heard on Friday, when he delivers the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor at Emanuel AME Church, who was among the nine people killed.


Confederate flag a controversial symbol
The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2015

NEW YORK - It is a symbol of honour for some, but of racial hatred for others.

The Confederate battle flag is seen widely across the southern states that seceded and were defeated in the American Civil War fought from 1861 to 1865. Yet, the X-shape blue "saltire" with 13 white stars representing the states in the alliance, against a red background, is a Confederate military flag that was never the official flag of the secessionist states.

The banner became a symbol, to some, of the South at war, of the army of General Robert E. Lee and the "lost cause" after defeat, and of the heroism of white southerners - while overlooking the slave system on which the South was built. Its racist connotations were underscored when it was embraced by the racist and violent Ku Klux Klan and some pro-segregationists.

Also carrying racist connotations is the word "nigger", used by President Barack Obama on Monday to emphasise enduring racism. Evoking images of lynchings, oppression, bigotry and discrimination, it has its origins in the Latin "niger" (black). By 1900, it was a pejorative term and, by 1960, it was commonly replaced by the word "black".

Mr Obama is not the first US president to use the word. In Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word, author Randall Kennedy names former presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman as using the word.

Mr Nixon was caught on White House tapes referring to blacks as "niggers". Mr Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights laws, but a biographer said he nominated jurist Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court rather than a lesser-known black candidate, because "when I appoint a 'nigger' to the bench, I want everybody to know he's a 'nigger'".


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