The long, ugly presidential history of the N-word

Barack Obama isn't the first commander-in-chief to employ the term, and past use has been anything but academic

By Timothy McGrath
Published June 25, 2015 8:30AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post Editor's note: The following story contains quoted racial slurs that some readers may find offensive.

President Barack Obama took on some very complex ideas about race and racism, and all anyone heard was a single word.

He was speaking with comedian Marc Maron on the popular podcast "WTF" when he said this:

“Racism, we’re not cured of. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n*gger’ 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.”

For anyone paying close attention, it was pretty clear what he meant. Racism is a complicated thing and it hasn't been cured, despite some signs of progress. It wasn't cured by the end of slavery. It wasn't cured by the removal of Jim Crow segregation. It wasn't cured by the successes of the civil rights movement. It wasn't cured by affirmative action policies. And it certainly wasn't cured when Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States.

Obama was also making a subtler point about what sorts of things count as "racism." It's really easy to spot racism when someone is dressed in white robes and spouting hate speech about black people. That guy is a racist, and most people can agree on it. But what about institutions? Take the massively disproportionate incarceration rates of African Americans in US prisons. Does that make the American criminal justice system racist? Many people say, yes. Other people say it's ridiculous to accuse a massive bureaucracy of racism.

So the president was taking on some complex issues here. And yet, all anybody seemed to hear was "n*gger."

Fox News, as you might expect, pounced. "Fox & Friends" co-host Steve Doocy said "people will be talking about whether or not it's appropriate for the president to use the 'n-word' and whether or not it is beneath the dignity of his office."

Zero attention to the context in which he used it. Zero attention to the nuance of his argument. Zero understanding, apparently, of something Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch put so well on Twitter:


That Obama was acting in a way unbefitting the office of the president is an interesting suggestion, too, considering several modern American presidents — white presidents — have also said the N-word. Unlike Obama, they weren't making an argument about racism — they were just being racist.

So, "Fox & Friends," is one presidential N-word the same as the next?

Here are some US presidents who used the N-word to disparage African Americans long before Barack Obama used it to illustrate a point about race in America.

Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States (1945-1953), had a relatively strong civil rights record during his presidency, but he also had a long record of saying racist things, including the N-word. On June 22, 1911,he wrote this to his future wife:

I think one man is just as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a n*gger or a Chinaman. Uncle Wills says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a n*gger from mud, and then threw what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.

In another letter to his wife in 1939 he used the expression "n*gger picnic day," and another time called Congressman Adam Clayton Powell a "damned n*gger preacher." According to historian William Leuchtenburg, Truman continued to use racial epithets through his life, although less publicly during his presidency.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States (1963-1969), secured some of the most important civil rights legislation in American history during his career in the US Senate and the White House.

He also once called a proposed piece of civil rights law the "n*gger bill."

There's also the story of how Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, in part because Marshall was such a well known African American figure. Or as he put it, according to one biographer, "when I appoint a n*gger to the bench, I want everybody to know he's a n*gger."

Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States (1969-1974), left extensive audio evidence of his bigotry. He seemed to be especially fond of using the N-word when speaking to Henry Kissinger, who began as Nixon's national security advisor and later became secretary of state. In one conversation, he told Kissinger that was wasn't going to bring up Africa in his presidential address to Congress.

"Henry, let's leave the n*ggers to Bill," Nixon said, referring to Secretary of State William Rogers, "and we'll take care of the rest of the world."

And these are just 20th century presidents whose use of the N-word was recorded. Who knows how many other men who've occupied the Oval Office have said the same.

After all, 12 American presidents were slaveholders at some point in their lives, and eight owned slaves while serving as president.

Not a promising record.

Timothy McGrath

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