- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

Even a Democrat running for the esteemed U.S. Senate acknowledges, “I don’t think that there’s anyone who grew up around the South who didn’t have the word pass through their lips at least once during their life.”

For that matter, hasn’t the euphemistic “n-word” been hurled or fallen from the loose lips of whites and blacks alike, young and old, either in anger, jest or even as a term of endearment bandied about by hip-hoppers today?

Heaven help us, the latter may present a more troubling scenario.

Still, it makes you wonder why that racially charged slur has taken center stage in the deteriorating Virginia senatorial campaign.

Who, if anyone, is served by this bitter-tasting battle? Certainly not our children, who obviously have little enough history of the painful origins or effects this ugly word represents, or so many of them wouldn’t be uttering it so freely now.

And, this nasty name-calling between Republican Sen. George Allen and his cookie-cutter challenger, Democrat James H. Webb Jr., is a dishonorable campaign distraction if ever there was one, and it needs to be put to rest.

For starters, we all need to look to the future and sign the contract put forth by the founders of the public-awareness campaign www.abolishthenword.com, and pledge never to let the explosive epitaph slither through our lips again.

“Hate is what killed our leaders; hate is the father of racism, Jim Crow; and racism is the author of the n-word … so why would you use it today?” says the Web site of the group founded by Jill Merritt and Kovan Flowers six months ago.

Indeed, if the Maryland race for the U.S. Senate between Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is black, and Democrat Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white, has gone to the dogs, then it may be safe to say the Senate race in the Old Dominion has resurrected the crows, the Jim Crows.

Thanks to the thirtysomethings from New York who work in the film, television and theater industries, the n-word is losing some of its power through their volunteer work with Abolish the “N” Word.

Ms. Merritt says they became so frustrated at not being able to turn on the radio or go to the movies without hearing the derogatory term used so much by blacks and Hispanics.

In fact, on a call-in show, they heard some teens say they had modified the spelling of the word and turned it into a greeting, meaning “homie.”

Help. Compelled to “do something,” the pair designed T-shirts and a Web site to “open up a dialogue.”

From the initial e-mail notice they sent to 40 friends announcing the campaign in April, the Web site has received 10 million hits. They are now linked to MySpace.com and Facebook, and have been invited to speak or send materials to every major city in the U.S. and 30 foreign countries, including South Africa. They also have appeared on several national shows.

I was so moved by the ATNW e-mail I received this summer, which opens with a haunting rendition “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday and photos of blacks lynched during the Jim Crow era, that I forwarded the message to more than 100 friends and associates.

ATNW raised enough money from the novelties they sell online to print free Educate Cards. Resembling a credit card, volunteers distribute them mainly to young people and ask them to pass it along.

Ms. Merritt said her concern is with blacks who casually use the n-word, “not anybody else.” “That’s something we should never say” because of our responsibility to be respectful of one another.

Should it matter in 2006 which white candidate used the word decades earlier? Or should we concentrate on whether those words translate into harmful policies now?

“I don’t care if white people use the word. I don’t want to be called that by anybody,” Ms. Merritt says. “They haven’t healed from the trauma of slavery either.”

But Roger Wilkins, George Mason University professor, is among the civil rights leaders who were outraged to hear news of Mr. Allen’s supposed slurs. He was quoted, saying it speaks to “how open a human heart [Mr. Allen] has.”

Perhaps. Take note, for example, that neither Virginia senatorial candidate is a proponent of affirmative action.

Mr. Allen and Mr. Webb deny the racial aspersions cast against them, but the loaded charges of their detractors will hardly be overlooked, which doesn’t present much of a distinct choice for Virginians.

Mr. Webb does not fare much better in the “ism” department. The former secretary of the Navy’s fairness is being called into question by female Allen supporters who said Mr. Webb’s regressive rhetoric and ramblings made it difficult for them during their military training.

And, the Democratic candidate’s reaction, quoted above, to the racial comments leveled against Mr. Allen speak volumes for themselves. For his spokeswoman to explain that Mr. Webb never “used the word directed at another person” didn’t help.

Whatever. The only good that can come from the terrible tone the Virginia senatorial race has taken is to use the language as a teaching tool, as an example of the inequality that is unacceptable in today’s society, no matter what wicked words slipped from your lips yesteryear.



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