The GOP's secret "n-word" politics: What their latest Obama outrage is really about

In the Age of Obama, conservatives continue their tradition of racial slurring — without actually saying the word

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 24, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Barack Obama          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Barack Obama (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

President Barack Obama was a recent guest on comedian Marc Maron’s "WTF" podcast. In their conversation on race and American life, the president made the following observation as reported by the Huffington Post:

"We are not cured of it," Obama told Maron on the podcast, which was recorded last week in Los Angeles but released Monday. "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. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior…

“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on," Obama said.

These are basic and reasonable facts that accurately describe a society where there is obvious progress along the colorline (a black man named Barack Obama was twice elected President of the United States) but much work still remains to be done (e.g. addressing police brutality against black and brown Americans; a racist criminal justice system; the racial wealth and income gap; extreme racial segregation in America’s schools and neighborhoods, etc.).

Even so, the right-wing media have found in Obama's statement their new outrage of the day. As is their wont and compulsion, the conservative propaganda machine will never let the facts interfere with a good (and manufactured) controversy. Hence: Fox News and the rest of the right wing media are simply aghast at Obama’s use of such racially powerful language.

The faux-controversy over Obama’s use of "the n-word" in a discussion about white supremacy and racial animus in the United States is one more example of how conservatives have hijacked anti-racist language and concepts such as “colorblindness,” “discrimination” and “racism” in the post-civil rights era. Instead of abiding by the original intent of such language, as offered and used by progressives and liberals, the White Right has twisted those concepts to serve white privilege and protect entrenched systems of white supremacy.

Now, racism (what is, “power” plus “privilege”) is distorted as “reverse racism” (an oxymoron, a type of newspeak, as to reverse racism actually means that there is in fact no racism). The concept is rooted in the bizarre notion that it is white people who are the actual racists; rather, it is black Americans and those others who dare to talk about white privilege and white supremacy that are guilty of that sin.  Similarly, when White America is asked to no longer use a racial slur, it is the former who are now somehow victims of “anti-white discrimination” and “unfair” racial “double-standards.” The ultimate effect of the right wing’s deft rewriting and reworking of the language of race in America is to fuel a white victimology and grievance industry, of which Fox News and the Republican Party are the main purveyors and beneficiaries.

The ugly irony of this latest fake outrage is that Fox News, the Republican Party, and the white right more broadly have been calling America’s first black President a "nigger" -- normally in all but name, but sometimes even in plain speech itself -- since his candidacy for president began, close to a decade ago.

While some conservatives and their defenders will immediately object to such a claim, the reality is that there are in fact many ways -- deployed throughout modern history -- to call a black person that word without ever saying it outright. The word itself came into common usage in the 19th century, as an “evolution” of earlier words used by white people in the context of white-on-black slavery, rape, violence, and the Maafa. Language has symbolic power. Words can be inherently provocative and violent acts against the minds and emotions of those individuals they are directed at. (The law even acknowledges such langauge as “fighting words.”)

Both historically and in the present, as used by white people, the word does said work by demeaning black people, marking them as less than fully human relative to others -- and therefore also uniquely subject to specific types of violence (spectacular lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries; being much more likely to be unarmed, not a threat, and still killed by police in the Age of Obama) and marginalization in the West. In the United States, the word also marks black people as outside of the polity, a type of pollutant in the White body politic, and not worthy of full citizenship -- signalling that black people should be extremely deferent, respectful and polite to white people.

The use of the word in American popular discourse is dynamic and changing. It was originally created by white people to dehumanize, debase, and defame black people’s humanity. Some African Americans have tried to reclaim the word, and thus rob it of its power However, as legendary comedian Richard Pryor famously explained -- and I am in agreement with him -- the word represents “our own wretchedness” as human beings and should be removed from black folks’ vocabulary.

Of course, black folks have a range of diverse opinions about the use and meaning of the word. What is undeniable, however, is that Black America has paid for the word in blood, death, suffering, and pain. Thus, we own it. The word is not one that white folks can make a legitimate claim on, regarding its usage. To do so is to wallow in white privilege and white supremacy, as the debate is not about language, but about the basic notion that there ought to be no limits on white folk’s behavior -- even under rules of good taste and common courtesy -- as requested by African Americans or other people of color (the debate about First Nations peoples as sports mascots is a close analogue to this conversation).

In post-civil rights era America, this complicated age of “racism without racists” and “colorblind” racism, the use of the word has “evolved”. For example, the Republican Party has mastered how to capture its noxious energy and animus as one of its primary weapons to gin up white racial resentment without necessarily needing to state it outright.

Indeed, conservatism and racism are mated in the Age of Obama. They are the Anubis or the beast with two backs. The GOP’s core electoral strategy, as the country’s largest White identity organization, was outlined by Lee Atwater 1981 when he decreed that:

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.”

The so-called “Southern Strategy” is prefaced on the use of what social scientists such as Ian Haney Lopez, Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders, David Sears, Larry Bobo, Joe Feagin, and others have described as “racial code words,” “dog whistles,” or “subtle racial appeals.”

Examples of such “dog whistles” include words and phrases such as “welfare queen,” “black crime,” “black pathology"; and references to black people's bad culture,” “broken homes,” “dependency,” “laziness” and lack of "work ethic.” This language has even expanded in recent years to include such phrases as “makers versus takers,” fatuous distinctions about “real Americas,” as well as Mitt Romney’s infamous claims about “the 47 percent.” In the Age of Obama, the Republican Party, Fox News, the right-wing echo chamber, and movement conservatives have provided a litany of examples in which they have invoked racist attitudes toward Obama without actually having to directly utter that six-letter word.

Barack Obama was subjected to a racial litmus test known as “Birtherism.” His legitimacy as president of the United States was questioned because of a deep belief that he is some type of foreign Other, incompatible with what it means to be a “real American.” (Read between the lines: A white American.)

And, in an almost unprecedented breach of decorum and respect, a white Republican from South Carolina named Joe Wilson heckled Obama during the 2009 State of the Union speech. Wilson’s rageful act of disrespect could have easily substituted a racial slur, and it would have had the same effect and meaning in that moment.

Barack Obama has been condemned repeatedly by the right-wing media and Republicans at large for being “angry” or “disrespectful.” For example, during the 2008 election, the Republican Party ran an ad that criticized Obama for supposedly committing the latter act of social impropriety towards Sarah Palin. But the idea that Obama should be inherently “respectful” to Sarah Palin, a white woman, has a pernicious history in the United States, as black men were often lynched for daring to not be “appropriately” submissive to white women and white men. Out of the same Jim and Jane Crow imagination, black people were also subjected to violence for being “uppity,” a word that is almost exclusively applied by White America to black people when they “don’t stay in their place.”

The idea that Barack Obama is too “uppity,” that he is somehow unfit to be in the White House, has also been extended to First Lady Michelle Obama, who -- despite all of her grace, intelligence, and presence -- has been called “unlady like,” “mannish,” and “ghetto” by her detractors on the right. One cannot overlook how black womanhood is also subjected to the same type of treatment by the White Right against President Barack Obama.

In 2012, Newt Gingrich dug deep into the well of white racial resentment and bigotry when he labeled President Barack Obama “the food stamp President”, drawing deep on the Southern Strategy white folks’ implicit bias and taught association between black people and poverty, and the insidious notion that Black America (and its first black President) are parasites on white people.

Republican Party officials have actually been caught sending emails and other communications that contain obvious racial invective, where Obama has been called racial slurs, depicted as a monkey or gorilla, and threatened with harm. Tea Party rallies prominently featured such racist imagery.

In response to Obama’s appearance on the Maron podcast, Fox News, as it has on other occasions, chose to mock and stereotype America’s first black President, as the “rapper in chief.” This is a none-too-subtle dog whistle for the absurd belief that Obama is some type of “thug,” an “angry” and “dangerous” black man, a street hoodlum, the embodiment of black hyper-thug masculinity -- the very imagery that Lee Atwater was summoning in his advice to the Republican Party in 1981.

Geographically and politically, the Republican Party is the Confederacy reborn. It has channeled the symbolism of the Confederate flag (what is the American Swastika) as a proud symbol of violence and white supremacy against Black Americans. Republicans have also wallowed, even to this day, in white supremacist fantasies of secession and nullification. The Confederate States of America and the Confederate flag were based upon a principle of inherent white power, white domination, unlimited and unbounded violence by whites against Black Americans. The Republican Party’s embrace of that language and symbolism is an act of calling all black Americans the n-word en masse.

The standard Republican deflection of these types of criticisms is that President Obama is being “protected” because of his race, that he has some type of imaginary “race card” that immunizes him from pushback, because any white Republican detractors will always be labeled “racists.” But, while Barack Obama should be criticized and challenged like any other president, those interventions should be made on the basis of policy and considerations the common good -- not colored by racial invective, resentment, or animus. Of course, this is a damn difficult and perhaps impossible task, given the deep cohesion of racism and white supremacy in the Republican Party.

For all intents and purposes, the Republican Party has been calling Black Americans the n-word for decades. Even their saint Ronald Reagan participated in this tradition when he began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a place where three freedom fighters and civil rights workers were killed by white terrorist thugs in 1964.

What did Reagan talk about in that speech? The importance of states rights, the very lynchpin of denying black Americans their rights and freedoms under Jim and Jane Crow; the South’s rationale for rebellion during the Civil War; and a belief that those who are black and brown are not equal to white people.

In 2007, journalist Bob Herbert made the following observation about Reagan’s racist signaling:

Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.

And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.

Congress overrode the veto.

Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too.

Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record.

Instead of engaging in such linguistic evasions, it would be more efficient and refreshing if the Republican Party would finally just call President Obama -- as well as black Americans by both extension and implication -- a "nigger" to his face, and in plain speech. Just get it over with already. Of course,such directness is impolitic in post-civil rights era America. But a man can always dream, can’t he?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Marc Maron Racism The N Word The Republican Party