Word War

Rating: NNyou have to watch what yousay. Certain words can get people very upset. "Nigger" is one of them.Harvard law.

Rating: NN

you have to watch what yousay. Certain words can get people very upset. “Nigger” is one of them.Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy tracks its social and legal history to show how it became America’s most inflammatory racial epithet.

He starts by tracing its first appearance as a word to dehumanize slaves being sent from Africa, and tracks its use in the South and then in the rest of the U.S. as a weapon fired off to keep blacks in their place.

When Randall gets to the law, he stays tough, reporting on the appalling number of times the word “nigger” falls out of the mouths of police officers and even judges in court transcripts. But as with any American liberal, free speech is Randall’s religion, which makes him intolerant of legal regulation.

Not that banning a word is necessary. Tell a person who uses the word “gyp” that it grew out of derogatory stereotypes about Gypsies and that person usually learns something. You don’t have to bring the full weight of the law against him.

But Randall goes way too easy on the U.S. courts, which, citing First Amendment principles, have been very lenient in discrimination suits, even those involving the continued use of “nigger” in the workplace.

He’s also weirdly naive (I’m guessing he’s trying to inflate his cool factor) when he says blacks can successfully reclaim the term. Hey, guy, check out which rap artists say “nigger” all the time and note that their “bitch” and “ho” quotients are pretty high, too.

Too bad Randall doesn’t venture outside the U.S. for some anti-racist strategies. Canada’s hate laws put constraints on the expression of ideas — advocating genocide of specific races, for example — not on single words. Write Books at susanc@nowtoronto.com

NIGGER: THE STRANGE CAREER OF A TROUBLESOME WORD by Randall Kennedy (Pantheon), 226 pages, $33 cloth. Rating: NN

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