The epithet has the upper hand. While the highest stage of celebrity may be recognition by first name, the epithet has achieved a new standard: recognition by first letter. Pity nefarious, nephritic, nihilist, nepotistic, nascent, and neophyte, all useful N-words, but none freighted enough to be the N-word. Not niggardly, either—it’s in the vicinity but unrelated. The N-word is so potent, so evocative, and so enduring that even without five-sixths of its letters we still know what and whom it’s about. The conventions of polite conversation seek to delete not simply those vowels and consonants but the entire obscene history that the word conjures—and the complex, contradictory ways in which the subjects of that history have sought to come to terms with it.
This was the contradiction highlighted two weeks ago, on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” when, as part of a failed punch line, the host referred to himself as a “house nigger.” Maher issued an apology, after which Ice Cube made an appearance on the show to demand a kind of epithet-protectionism policy, insuring that the word fall only from the mouths of black people. That incident was one of a series. Two days before Maher’s remark, someone had spray-painted the word on the front gate of LeBron James’s home in Los Angeles. Several days before that, Walmart banned a white customer who was caught on video hurling the term at another shopper. There is a superficial sense of progress associated with the fact that a term constructed for the sole purpose of human degradation has been so widely disparaged. Yet the problem is not, and never has been, the word but, rather, the world that the word helped create. There are many ways to grapple with ugliness bequeathed to us by the past; as it happens, excising five letters is not a particularly effective one.
We’ve had occasion of late to think a good deal about excising history. Last month, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, delivered a speech at Gallier Hall, which served as City Hall for more than a century, on the city’s removal of four Confederate-themed monuments. The decision had generated protests—some of them armed—and counter-protests, and for a moment the city became a symbol of the broadest tensions between the left and the right that have been roiling the nation. Landrieu’s speech, a finely crafted examination of New Orleans’ history and culture and their impact on the present, went viral, and the Times and the Washington Post published the text of the speech on their Web sites. Landrieu’s comments were not confined to the immediate controversy but, rather, challenged the flawed morality that had initially led people to memorialize three Confederate leaders—Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P. G. T. Beauregard—and the Battle of Liberty Place, an act of racist mob violence that occurred in 1874. The cult of the Lost Cause, Landrieu pointed out, was designed to obscure the fact that the Confederacy was “on the wrong side of history and humanity.” He said:
It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is a history we should never forget and one that we should never, ever again put on a pedestal to be revered. As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.
That this cause, the one that the word “nigger” is meant to serve, might ever have found a place of honor is a more apt barometer of the country’s relationship to its own history than the facile concerns over the usage of the word. Landrieu’s assessment is not, or at least should not be, considered controversial, but his office was inundated with phone calls from people buoyed by a rush of denialism about the fact that those Confederate leaders had fought, unrepentantly, for the cause of slavery and white supremacy. That denial was central to the thinking of the Alabama state lawmakers who, on the same day that New Orleans removed the last of the four statues, passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, making it illegal to remove any memorial that has stood on state ground for more than forty years. As tortured as this perspective may be, it contains a veiled concession: a feeble but detectable recognition that racism per se is sufficiently indefensible that it must be cloaked in euphemism. The Trump era, it appears, has its own brand of political correctness.
Three days after Landrieu delivered his speech, Richard Collins III, a senior at Bowie State University, was stabbed to death on campus in an incident that is being investigated as a hate crime. A University of Maryland student who has been charged in Collins’s death was a member of a white-supremacist Facebook group called Alt-Reich: Nation. Four days after that, in Portland, Oregon, a white supremacist stabbed to death Rick Best, a fifty-three-year-old military veteran, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a recent graduate of Reed College, and also wounded a third man, after they had come to the aid of two Muslim women on a train. Those crimes reflect what the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have noted as increasing numbers of bias attacks and threats in the past year.
The geographic spread of these episodes is telling. Landrieu’s speech missed a crucial point: the resurgent celebration of the Confederate cause is not just a matter of Southern history. Last week, two local N.A.A.C.P. chapters petitioned Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, to take down six Confederate monuments in his state, which did not join the union until a half century after Appomattox. The South did not rise again, but it didn’t have to. We have assiduously monitored the deployment of the word “nigger,” but the idea that it is meant to convey has become, in the past few years, increasingly prominent, visible, and dangerous.