For all of our collective discussions about how far America has come on matters of race, we continue to have moments that cause us to ponder just how far we've actually come.
Don't get me wrong; America has indeed come a long way from the Compromise of 1790, which enshrined African male slaves as 60 percent human for the purposes of census, to the present moment. In 1946, many still couldn't imagine a black man playing Major League Baseball let alone one day becoming commander in chief of the armed forces.
For all the unquestioned racial progress, just below the surface, lies a single word that embodies our racial immaturity.
You know the word; it is used much more in private circles, but in the world of political correctness it is known simply as the N-word.
It is probably the most offensive word in our discourse. Yet, some embrace it as a term of endearment. It carries no real definition beyond a pejorative referring to black people. It certainly has enjoyed a long shelf life, having its pejorative status secured since the Revolutionary War.
But what does it really mean to call someone the N-word?
The word is so toxic in our public discourse there can be repercussions even when the N-word is not said, but wrongly assumed.
Several years ago, David Howard, a former staff member of Washington DC Mayor, Anthony Williams, used "niggardly" in a private meeting and was forced to resign.
It mattered little that the word Howard used is defined as spending grudgingly. What mattered was the close phonetic association.
I remember rather fondly when I realized how powerful political correctness had invaded the public's use of the N-word after my son read Huckleberry Finn. As he recounted the story he kept referring to a character that I understood to be "Inward Jim."
Having read the book myself, albeit many years ago, I could not for the life of me recall this character, who stood out so vividly to my son. Finally I realized that it was not "Inward Jim" but rather "N-word Jim" that he was referring.
We also know the N-word carries a radioactive quality as Dr. Laura Schlessinger discovered last week. Schlessinger, during her syndicated radio talk show, stirred up a controversy for using the N-word several times.
Schesslinger was talking to an African-American caller about her white husband and his friends making racially charged jokes. The caller then asked about the appropriateness of using the N-word, to which Dr. Laura responded by saying that black comics on HBO use it all the time. Schlessinger then proceeded to use the N-word three times to the caller's dismay.
At face value, given our current inability to come to terms with the N-word, Schlessinger's public use makes her a de facto racist in the best-case scenario.
But therein lies part of our dilemma and immaturity about the N-word--context is a slippery indefinable slope.
Here is a brief excerpt from Schlessinger's exchange:
Caller: How about the N-word? So, the N-word's been thrown around --
Schlessinger: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.
Schlessinger has since apologized, but was she wrong? Are whites forbidden to even repeat what is stated on cable television if it includes the N-word?
Doesn't context and intent mean something? How does Schlessinger's comments compare with those of Mel Gibson, who reportedly stated to the mother of his young child, "And if you get raped by a pack of ni**ers it will be your fault.
Are we incapable of seeing the different usage of the N-word between Schlessinger, urban comics, Mel Gibson, or the Ku Klux Klan? Or does our collective immaturity possess room only for a one-size-fits-all definition?
Our varied reactions suggest an arrested development. Words only have the power we bequeath them. Are we guilty of giving this particular word too much power in our discourse?
Campaigns to bar the N-word from dictionaries or to offer symbolic resolutions forbidding its use seem like an utter waste of time.
It is perhaps the only word when used publicly one is granted immunity from factoring context, intent, or critical thinking. No other word is so meaningless, yet so powerful that it robs us of the prerequisites to engage in a judicious manner, leaving only emotion to be our trusted guide.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at email@example.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com