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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

The 'N' Word

Just as we could thank George III for creating the United States of America, black America can now thank Don Imus for making Russell Simmons finally face himself. On Monday Mr. Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records, called for a voluntary ban on the N-word, "bitch" and "ho'" in rap music, and suggested that the words be bleeped when music with them is broadcast. Meanwhile, the NAACP has spearheaded a STOP campaign aimed at combating the use of these words, and the imagery associated with them, in popular culture.

This is a moment for the history books.

In fact, there has been an ongoing "conversation" in the black community and beyond, about black people's use of the N-word among themselves, and in rap music. It's been a staple topic in the media, in call-in radio shows and on panels for several years. But at times it has been hard to glean much purpose in this conversation.

On the one hand there is a consensus that there is something really wrong with black people using these words with such glee, meanwhile supporting the billion-dollar recording industry that wallows in it. Yet after the speeches, history lessons and chin-scratching are over, the N-word, "bitch" and "ho'" continue to reign supreme, lexical staffs of life in top-selling rap.

What's the justification? Well, we are told that the very wondrousness of this music is that it is "keeping it real." It has been especially depressing to watch "hip-hop intellectuals" pontificating on this theme. Hearing rap denounced as sexist, for example, they tartly remind us that there is sexism in American society as a whole—suddenly blind to the obvious issue of degree. And this from people who brandish a tripwire sensitivity to the minutest gradations of racism.

This worship of the "real" has done black America no favors, beyond making some entertainers and producers very rich. The civil rights heroes of the past were devoted to getting America past the racism and segregation that were once quite "real." It used to be considered a hallmark of human societies that their members strive beyond the "real"—creating legal codes, religions and even art.

The idea that black people ought now sit back and savor the "reality" of abusive language, including the same word that the Bull Connors of the world once hurled at us in all of its "reality," is in essence lazy. It is an incoherent rationalization by people who are merely intoxicated by the rhythms and politically inclined to thrill to black voices from the street.

Two weeks ago there was little reason to expect a return to basic standards of decency and dignity among the folks so besotted with the fascinations of the "real." Mr. Simmons and Benjamin Chavis issued a manifesto in the wake of the Imus controversy, insisting that this kind of language in hip-hop was "reality" not to be "censored."

One assumed that the language on these recordings would only change very gradually, as the result of a change in black America's self image, the increasing hybridization of the population, or perhaps just fashion. Every once in a great while, however, one witnesses a phase shift, when events conspire to force an abrupt and significant change in the cultural landscape.

It would appear that something about the Imus episode really struck a chord in a way that earlier events did not. George Allen's macaca comment was rather obscure; Michael Richards's gaffe was a peculiar, nervous outburst from a washed-up comedian. But Mr. Imus had influence and a long record of verbal tackiness; the fact that he was referring to young, talented women rendered his comment stingingly mean. The usual routine—screaming bloody murder, while nevertheless insisting that black men using the same words on bestselling CDs is "real"—suddenly felt inconsistent, not to mention small and even uncomfortably close to self-loathing.

Most debates on race boil down to the question as to whether black America's main problem is racism or culture—that is, whether Bill Cosby is right. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly mainstream among blacks to understand that questioning aspects of black culture is a matter not of ignorance or ill will, but of survival. There is a growing perception that even if all racism were somehow removed as of this Friday, black Americans would still have a lot of work to do.

How truly awesome it is that this week, one of the hip-hop industry's creators and a civil rights organization (so addicted to chasing "racism" that a new president committed to social services instead didn't even last two years) have committed themselves to the black community looking inward.

We cannot hope to control private conversation—as a quick listen to the way so many black, Latino and even many Asian teens now talk to one another will so easily demonstrate. However, we can have more control over the public sphere—if only its powers that be get in line. Mr. Simmons and the NAACP just did.