Nearly two weeks ago a federal jury in New York ruled that Rob Carmona, who identifies as Black and Hispanic and STRIVE, the nonprofit employment agency he co-founded, must pay punitive damages to African American employee, Brandi Johnson.
STRIVE, the non-profit employment center where she worked, was a hostile workplace according to Johnson, who claims she had to endure verbal harassment while working under the management of Carmona. The employment center in East Harlem argued that the use of the word was part of a “tough-love culture.”
The jury ruled that Carmona must pay $25,000 and his non-profit organization must pay $5,000 in punitive damages. Jurors also awarded $280,000 in compensatory damages to Johnson, 38, who sued Carmona personally and STRIVE, which he founded in 1984 and described as a “empowerment movement disguised as an employment agency.”
According to anti-racist expert Tim Wis, usage of the N-word among Blacks is very common, and to younger African Americans is an affirmation of Blackness. In fact, some argue that public usage of the word and its derivations has become widely acceptable.
At the same time, old-guard civil rights-minded African Americans and their supporters remain ever watchful of usage of the N-word and continue to call out those who utter it.
Known today as possibly one of the most visceral and offensive words in the English language, the origin of the N-word cannot be exactly pinpointed by scholars.
To understand the history of the word, one must venture back to a time between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Blacks were widely portrayed as subhuman. Some scholars believe a variation of the word was first printed in 1555 in an old world Spanish version of a publication similar to today’s National Geographic magazine.
Etymologists fail to agree on an exact time period that the N-word was born, however they believe it originates from the root word “nigrum,” a Latin term meaning black. The N-word has undergone changes in spelling becoming niger, negro, noir, nègre, and n*er.
Others often incorrectly associate it with the Biblical term “niggardly” and believe it originated around the year 30 A.D.
The word “niggardly” appears in 2 Corinthians—“But do not forget that he who sows with a niggardly hand will also reap a niggardly crop, and that he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” According to theological behavior expert Wendy Walsh, this usage has nothing to do with race.
In the 2004 documentary “The N Word,” actor Samuel Jackson reiterates that he is a “N*a.” After repeating this several times, he laughs and says, “I am one of those guys you really don’t want to mess with.” He also informs the interviewer that “if you piss me off, I am going to do some niggerly shit to you.”
Niggerly is often confused with niggardly.
The racial order that exists today in the United States originated during the introduction of slavery and continued through the Jim Crow period. However, eventually the Civil Rights Movement peacefully challenged the White-Black hierarchy. After that, the word n*er was used publicly primarily for social and historical commentary in such examples of literature as Dick Gregory’s autobiography, “Nigger” or H. Rap Brown’s book, “Die Nigger Die.”
Black youth are one social and cultural anomaly today regarding the use of the N-word. Unlike teens involved in the civil rights movement—where youth as young as 11 years old protested for equal rights and the right not to be called “n*er; were beaten by the police; hosed down with water; and hauled off to jail—contemporary young people freely and lovingly use the N-word.
Even though the Civil Rights Movement heralded landmark Supreme Court Decisions, the word n*er did not die; it only went to sleep.
During the 1970s, blaxploitation movies and Richard Pryor helped resuscitate the N-word. In the 1970s, Pryor won a Grammy for his comedy act album, “That Nigger’s Crazy,” but after a pilgrimage to Africa, Pryor vowed never to use the word again.
That same decade, the “N-word” metamorphisized into “na” then after a long period of dormancy in America, the word “ner” once again changed appearance and meaning, much like the fashion industry reinvents itself. This new definition and usage has charged into contemporary popular culture and spawned significant controversy.
Today Rap music is under attack for its casual use of the “N-word,” and the artists argue that they are using the word as a term of empowerment or endearment. However, the word “n*a is often intertwined with other lyrics about drugs, killing, and degrading comments about women. Some like, Shaun R. Harper, professor of race and gender studies at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that the word could never be seen as a word of empowerment but reflects a “duality of confusion in our society, because we are not taught a comprehensive history about African Americans in this country.”
The increasingly schizophrenic nature of the response to the word is graphically illustrated by an incident involving a young actress.
Last summer while attending the “Watch the Throne” concert taking place in Paris, France, actress Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted the caption “N*s in Paris for real,” attached to a photograph of herself with Jay-Z and Kanye West standing on stage at the Bercy sports arena. Her actions, although playful, received mixed reactions from the public according to an article on CNN’s website.
Some African Americans became enraged and wanted an apology while others thought Paltrow’s actions that night were not that serious and she deserved a pass.
The epithet is part of the song title “N*s in Paris” by rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z; both are friends of the actress. She wasn’t using the slur independently but simply to reference the rap song, said Communications Studies Professor Javon Johnson.
The above incident can be expected, according to University of San Francisco professor Johnson, who notes that artistic types often push societal boundaries. “That is what they do and are expected to do. They attempt to go beyond what is the established as the norm. That is what art does.”
Johnson noted that some boundaries breached will have a painful history, and the “N-word” is associated with a painful history. “We, as African Americans, may not always like it and voice our discontent, but we have to remember that similar boundaries have been pushed in the name of art. The Harlem Renaissance, and the Black Arts Movement were conceived without constraints.”
One instance where the N-word is heavily policed is in prisons.
F, a former resident at Optimist Boy’s Home, a residential treatment home for troubled youth in Highland Park, joined a Mexican gang at an early age and became, by his own admission, a person with an institutional mind set. He was an individual, based on his stories of prison and jail riots he was involved in during the early 1990s, who would utter the N-word without thinking.
“Sometimes the heads of the gangs meet; we call them reps as in representatives and whenever there are any problems, or something needs to be handled (someone getting beat up) … people beating each other up, or this guy owes a gambling debt. Gangs don’t just attack each other because lockdowns interfere with drug sales. There’s usually something going wrong. . . . a lot of stuff gets traded in there because everything’s money. We do not use the N-word, and if you are caught using it, you are beat up by your own race, it’s the law and it is expected. This policy keeps down unnecessary violence. It’s okay for the Black inmates to say n*er and that’s it.
“A lot of times we will have a homeboy new to the pen, and he will have grown up around Blacks and interacted with them; he may be accustomed to using the N-word due to having Black friends. Often in racially diverse ghettos, you have young Mexicans greeting each other by saying ‘what’s up my nigga!’ In the pen, they are instantly reprogrammed by us to not use that word, period or we will (Mexican gang) have to handle you,” explained F.
The N-word has also been used in courtrooms to explain how an interracial assault isn’t a hate crime but a result of the excessive use of the N-word.
Nicholas “Fat Nick” Minucci had a persona that could be defined as a White guy caught up in the Gangsta Rap lifestyle. The Brooklyn Rail newspaper described Minucci as decked out in a black sweatshirt with a silver crucifix around his neck, looking every bit the part of a Gangsta Rap groupie as he appeared in Rap artist Cassidy’s “I’m a Hustla” video.
On June 29, 2005, Minucci beat African American Glenn Moore with a baseball bat and robbed him. While assaulting the African American, Minucci repeatedly screamed “n*er.” During the trial, Minucci’s attorney argued that he had not committed a hate crime. The core of the defense’s attorney’s strategy was that “Minucci’s use of the N-word while assaulting and robbing Moore was not an indication of any bias or prejudice.” The defense went on to indicate that Minucci was what you could refer to as a “Wigger,”—he had Black friends, was immersed in Black culture, and employed the N-word as a benign form of address similar to how many African American artists and young people of various ethnicities used it.
The Paltrow and Minucci incidents involve White individuals who have been or are currently involved with Hip Hop artists who have used word N*a in their lyrics.
Hip Hop music producer Gary Jenkins and Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy testified during Minucci’s trial that the N-word was not necessarily a racial epithet, and they were basing their testimony on academic and professional experience.
Referring to an article titled “Hate Crimes and Revealing Motivation Through Racial Slurs.” written by Gregory S. Parks, J.D., Ph.D. and Shayne E. Jones, Jenkins and Kennedy explained how they systematically analyze and assess the use of the N-word within hate crimes law. “We use a Critical Race Realist methodology and in doing so, we systematically analyze Black and White usage of the N-word within popular culture whether it is Rap music, Spoken Word or Comedy.
“These findings are then reconciled with research on implicit unconscious race bias. In sum, we argue that whereas many Blacks may use the “N-word,” usage by Whites immersed in Black culture is negligible.
“Furthermore, we find that many Whites harbor implicit anti-Black biases and such biases predict racial hostility and the use of racial epithets.
“Consequently, within the realm of hate crimes law, courts should presume racial animus when a White person uses the N-word while committing a crime against a Black person. Furthermore, despite high rates of Black usage of the N-word and high rates of implicit anti-Black biases among Blacks, a law of intra-racial hate crimes among Blacks predicated upon their usage of the N-word would be fruitless. This is (true) given that fact the N-word means something differently when used intra-racially among Blacks than when directed at Blacks from Whites,” said Kennedy.