Let's Be Honest About Race, America

06/23/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016


When Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, said the "n-word," America reacted in shock. His bluntness in the context of the recent shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Church, proved too real for many Americans to handle.

That's because for the last 40 years our country has bought into a narrative that if we simply don't speak openly about race, if we make it "abstract," it will cease to plague us. Americans seem all too comfortable in their ignorance-is-bliss mentality: If you don't say the word, you don't mean anything by it.

The right wing has been happy with this arrangement because racist white people can literally say anything shy of the actual word, and accuse anyone of "race-baiting" who calls them out on their meaning. The politically correct left has been satiated by the current arrangement because they've made it unacceptable to say the word, so hey, at least we're getting somewhere. However, this situation was imperfect from the beginning, and it has been cracking ever since.

I chose the term "abstract" in the previous paragraph carefully as it is the same word Republican strategist and former chairman of the RNC, Lee Atwater, used when describing the modern Southern Strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"--that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.... "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

In order to fully appreciate what a quote from 1981 has to do with modern politics, it is important to understand who Atwater was in terms of the GOP. As I have already explained, he was the chair of the RNC, but perhaps more importantly, he was Karl Rove's mentor, and George W. Bush's best friend. Beyond that he was a brilliant propagandist who enabled the Reagan realignment, put George H.W. Bush in power, and swayed moderate white America. Without Atwater, there would be no modern Republican Party, and in many ways, his strategy continues today.

You can see hints of it every time a Republican candidate or a FOX News pundit says "we need to cut entitlements" and "we need to cut taxes" or "welfare is bankrupting us." As Atwater explains, these are not just economic initiatives; they are calculated to be dog whistles to racist whites who realize that "blacks get hurt" by such policies.

Since the election of Barack Obama right wing hate group activities have increased dramatically. The survivalist movement, or white people who literally seem to think that the world is going to end now that we have a black man in the White House, has become so popular we have made television shows about it.

Racism is so widely accepted as 'the norm' it should not surprise us when violence erupts--especially given the ease of access to firearms in this country (but that is another article entirely)--because we are sitting atop an active volcano. We should expect this by now seeing as how we have been wholly unable to even have an honest discussion about race.

We live in a society plagued by racial division, where the instigating half of the population actively ignores and denies the problem--evidenced by the slew of high-profile Republicans and FOX News pundits calling the Emanuel AME Church shooting "an attack on religious liberty." And the half that acknowledges the problem, is so terrified of even the utterance of a disgusting word it will literally accept anything else--however thinly-veiled.

I support and welcome President Obama's candid remarks. I am not advocating for 'nigger' to return as an acceptable part of America's lexicon, nor am I issuing an indictment of political correctness, but I do think that saying the phrase, "the n-word" does more damage than good because it allows the actual word to be said politely. As Louis CK said we have to "own up" to our racism.