THE BLOG
11/19/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

From Muhammad Ali to Charles Barkley, How the Use of 'Ni**a' in the Media Shows How Black America Lost Its Way

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Since the 1960s, America has gone through a number of topical changes in its cultural makeup. Over the last 50 years we have seen everything from the election of the nation's first Black President, to a Black woman named Oprah attaining the status of billionaire. Yet, we stand at a place where the anomaly does little to explain the mass reality of a Black America that has digressed by nearly every major indicator over that same period. Financial stability, incarceration rate, social structure, moral commitment, we have lost path and direction no matter the category you identify. To put this in context, according to DiversityInc.com

The wealth of Black households is a statistic not even compiled until 1984. At that point, Black families had about 9 percent of the wealth of white households. This financial gap has not only widened in the past 30 years, but the wealth of Black households has shrunk from just over $7,000 to roughly $6,400. White families have seen their wealth increase from $82,000 to more than $91,000 in that same time period, or more than $14,000 for every $1,000 of wealth Black families have. Dr. King's Dream Failing?

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Also, during this time we have seen an even greater digression in our athletes, entertainers and politicians' stance on issues that play on the reality of America's ugly racial history. From Jay-Z's race neutral response to Barneys, to the more recent issues with Charles Barkley & Matt Barnes opinions on the word Ni**a. The distance we have fallen since Muhammad Ali stated, "I Ain't Got No Quarrel With The VietCong...No VietCong Ever Called Me Nigger" in 1966 is mammoth.

Modern American popular culture has become so popular that it has left history out of its DNA. It has replaced that history with a mix of idealism, hope and fantasy. Recreating the black and white divide that has defined our country, as though it were the Hatfields and McCoys, with two sides of equal power that need to now get along. The issue is American history did not happen that way. We are on the precipices of having to honestly face what America's racial monster really left under our cultural bed, as our nation's postmodern image of race cracks under the pressure of historical reality.

Earlier this month Matt Barnes upon being ejected from a game tweeted:
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The tweet was then supported by statements by Charles Barkley on TNT, narrowly defining a validation for the use of the word (Ni**a). Note: A word that I feel should be stricken from the English language and American culture due to it resonating an echo of an ugly history of slavery, lynchings, rape and dehumanization.

On TNT Barkley stated "Matt Barnes there is no apology needed. I'm a black man. I use the N-word. I will continue to use the N-word with my black friends, with my white friends. They are my friends. In a locker room and when I'm with my friends we use racial slurs..." Charles Barkley continues on TNT by saying "This national debate that's going on right now makes me uncomfortable,"

Jason Whitlock of ESPN responded to Charles Barkley with a poignant and honest article entitled "More than sticks and stones" posted on ESPN. In the piece Whitlock not only assessed the ignorance of justifying the use of the term. But, he also delivered a long needed assessment of entertainers speaking on social issues without enough bases to understand their statements greater social impact.

I'm a huge Barkley fan. But he doesn't remotely understand the complexity of the N-word issue. He gets paid millions of dollars to think about basketball and serve as a celebrity. Maintaining relevance as a celebrity requires retaining traction with young people...Barkley, 50, isn't paid to swim in the deep end of the pool. He's paid to be a humorous populist.

We elevated entertainers and athletes to the status of cultural giants, and they took that status and spoke to issues they had too little base to grasp. Unlike Ali many have not done the work to understand the current realities of a Black America that is so clearly out of focus. As our cultural heroes moved from rejecting being product spokesman, to being nothing more than products, we lost a voice for social inequity that we had in prior years in Harry Belafonte, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. These civil rights activists were replaced with Jay-Z and Charles Barkley, who either through silence or screams echo an ignorance about the current state of our culture.

As further stated by Jason Whitlock on ESPN.com:

"...black American culture has been turned upside down and corrupted by mass incarceration, the destruction of the traditional family unit and commercial hip-hop music. The impact of these corrosive forces can be seen in the values and perspective of African-Americans across economic and class lines. We have a new normal. As it relates to the N-word, Barkley and Wilbon, like many African-Americans, have adapted to the new normal... "

Earlier this year I wrote a piece here on The Huffington Post titled, Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, the Shadow of Racism and the Power of "the N-word" In the piece I looked at the use of the word Ni**a by both Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin per testimony.

Both Martin' and Deen's uses of the "N-Word" serve as reflective mirrors into this country's cultural psyche, showing the lasting impact of having the type of embedded overt racism that was present for practically the entire history of our country. Is the new normal the same as old normal, justified by an acceptance by a new generation. These uses of the word n****r make it clear a shadow of racism still exists; this comes due to a lack of social honesty about race, and as a result a missing dialogue on racism's real impact economically, socially and beyond. We as a country have hooked onto a nouveau concept of majority and minority division (while important separately), it has led to a dilution of the context of an American history based almost entirely on a black and white racial divide....The contextual contrast of Trayvon and Paula calls upon their age, race and lastly gender and brings to the forefront a question not about a word. Rather it presents a question about a country, and its willingness to be honest with itself about what its foundation is really built upon. Then, once honest, when we find that foundation was constructed with deep realities of racism, the next question is how we as a citizenry can correct these issues by moving toward needed:
1) Honest discussion,
2) Policy changes and
3) Community action.

Revisionism will not fix our issues as we face an American history that has left open wounds that clearly have failed to close and begin healing. Statements such as those made by Barkley take a shortsighted approach to a word, where origins don't matter. But, origins are important, and quite telling. As stated by Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University:

We know that as early as the 17th century, "negro" evolved to "nigger" as intentionally derogatory, and it has never been able to shed that baggage since then -- even when black people talk about appropriating and reappropriating it. The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history. -- Straight Talk about the N-Word

When Muhammad Ali refused to fight in a war that he felt was not his own, his personal fight ignited and helped push a race in a direction where they owned their actions. The great challenge now is to be honest about the impact of what modern entertainers are saying will be, and the direction these new statements will take us. What does it mean when Charles Barkley validates the use of the word Ni**a on national television? What does it mean when Barney's racially profiles while partnering with Jay-Z? In the end what does it mean when Ali & Belafonte cast a shadow that Barkley & Jay-Z now bask in, but can not properly uphold?


"If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything." Malcolm X