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Friday, November 15, 2013
More than sticks and stones

By Jason Whitlock
ESPN.com

Charles Barkley/Michael Wilbon
Charles Barkley, left, and Michael Wilbon do not want anyone telling them what they can and cannot say when it comes to the N-word.

It's impossible to pinpoint when the N-word became black America's most cherished possession. But that fact is now impossible to deny.

We have reached the point where it wouldn't surprise me to see Jay Z or another prominent black celebrity call for a Million N-word March on Washington to stop the tepid, informal debate regarding the appropriateness of black people using the slur. Black people's right to call each other the N-word is now akin to protecting our rights to vote and to sit anywhere on a bus.

"This national debate that's going on right now makes me uncomfortable," Charles Barkley said Thursday night on TNT during a segment discussing Clippers guard Matt Barnes angrily tweeting the N-word after being ejected from a game. "I'm a black man. I use the N-word. I will continue to use the N-word among my black friends, with my white friends."

ESPN's Michael Wilbon actually kicked off the nationally televised defense of the N-word.

"People can be upset with me if they want," he said on "Pardon the Interruption." "I, like a whole lot of people, use the N-word all day every day my whole life. ... I have a problem with white people framing the discussion for the use of the N-word."

Barkley, who has written two books with Wilbon, praised Wilbon's perspective.

"White America don't get to dictate how me and Shaq talk to each other," Barkley said.

This is what I was referring to last week when I wrote that black American culture has been turned upside down and corrupted by mass incarceration, the destruction of the traditional family unit and commercial hip-hop music. The impact of these corrosive forces can be seen in the values and perspective of African-Americans across economic and class lines. We have a new normal. As it relates to the N-word, Barkley and Wilbon, like many African-Americans, have adapted to the new normal. The N-word is a cherished possession.

We have bought the false narrative promoted by rappers and the corporations that pay rappers to make black-denigration music that the N-word has been stripped of its power to denigrate. We foolishly believe that religiously using the slur given to us by enslavers who saw us as subhuman is a righteous act of defiance against The Man.

Think about it. Imagine Kunta Kinte in "Roots" hanging from a tree being beaten by the overseer for refusing to take the name Toby. Fast-forward 200 years and imagine a well-intentioned white person counseling a young black man to avoid adopting the slur given to him by a white bigot. A fight would break out.

"Give me the N-word, or give me death!"

The N-word is a not a generational issue. The N-word was never a fad. It was a primary tool in the enslavement, disenfranchisement and cultural destruction of a race of people.

That is the battle cry being sounded out of fear that Roger Goodell and David Stern might make the appropriate choice to define their workplaces as slur-free zones.

"What I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me," Barkley said. "The language we use in the locker room, sometimes it's sexist, sometimes it's homophobic, and a lot of times it's racist. We do that when we're joking with our teammates, and it's nothing personal."

It's America. We have the right to do whatever we want among our friends. I like to joke as much as anybody, and my track record proves that I have trouble staying in the harmless inoffensive zone. But businesses also have the right to regulate behavior among co-workers and customers.

Goodell and Stern should ban the N-word from NFL and NBA workplaces. Customers don't need to hear Kevin Garnett shouting it on the court. Players don't need to bark it indiscriminately in the locker room. All of the locker room foolishness we've heard about the past two weeks, since the Incognito-Martin controversy, does not contribute to winning games. Teams that use the N-word across color lines do not have more locker room chemistry than teams that don't.

Banning the N-word in the workplace is not a threat to American freedom or a racist assault on black America. Remember eight years ago when people overreacted because Stern had the audacity to require his players to dress appropriately when coming to work? Taking off the white T's, do-rags, oversized jewelry and putting on business-casual attire was somehow defined as a racist plot hatched by Stern.

It wasn't. It was a wise business move. It was a continuation of Stern's responsibility to make the NBA more appealing to its customer base and corporate sponsors. Stern acted in the best interest of his players, a bunch of kids who think Jay Z is smarter about basketball than the commissioner is.

We love celebrity in this country. I love Charles Barkley. He's the star of my favorite sports TV show -- TNT's "Inside the NBA." He's a well-behaved Charlie Sheen. Barkley, 50, isn't paid to swim in the deep end of the pool. He's paid to be a humorous populist.

"This national debate that's going on right now," he said Thursday, "makes me uncomfortable that regular people try to act like they have the courage to play pro sports. They don't have that."

Regular people don't have the courage to play pro sports? Really?

This is my problem with some millionaire ex-jocks who come to believe that their perspective is superior to those who have not played on their level. Winning the genetics lottery and earning fame and fortune in America does not make a person an expert in their field, let alone an expert on topics outside their field. Fame and fortune foment self-delusion. They're the sworn enemy of self-awareness. The rich and the famous oftentimes reach the erroneous conclusion that they're rich and famous because they've made all the right decisions. (I use the N-word and I'm rich and famous, therefore, there's nothing wrong with using the N-word.) Luck is oftentimes the determining factor in American financial success. If Barkley had stopped growing at 5-foot-7, do you think he would've played in the NBA? If Barkley were a "regular" guy, do you think he would have had the courage to join the military and defend this country?

I'm a huge Barkley fan. But he doesn't remotely understand the complexity of the N-word issue. He gets paid millions of dollars to think about basketball and serve as a celebrity. Maintaining relevance as a celebrity requires retaining traction with young people. A star doesn't want to skew too old. When a star reaches middle age, there is pressure to adopt some of the sensibilities of the younger generation. It's uncool to sound like an old fuddy-duddy. The hipsters will accuse you of screaming "get off my lawn."

We've reached that point with the N-word. People who oppose its use regardless of the color of the user are accused of being out of date and sounding like the parents of the baby boom generation, the parents who were bothered by rock 'n' roll music, long hair and other 1960s fads.

Jay Z
The use of the N-word, by Jay Z and countless other artists, implies a lack of understanding, or a dismissal, of the history the word brings with it.

The N-word is a not a generational issue. The N-word was never a fad. It was a primary tool in the enslavement, disenfranchisement and cultural destruction of a race of people.

It's appropriate to laugh off our grandparents' overreaction to Afros, hippies, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It's inappropriate to analogize their overreaction to rational people's repulsion at the aggressive mainstreaming of the N-word.

The debate surrounding the N-word isn't young people versus old people. It's intelligence versus ignorance, values versus no values, family versus dysfunction and responsible/restrained capitalism versus capitalism left unchecked.

Baby boomers, by and large, were raised in traditional two-parent households. They were educated in neighborhood schools by people who lived in those neighborhoods or ones just like them. Baby boomers strayed because they believed too authentically in the values their parents taught. They questioned authority because America's wars and domestic policies relating to race contradicted what America preached. Baby boomers rebelled against American hypocrisy.

The current generation of young people, the children and grandchildren of baby boomers, is not rebelling against anything. It is rebelling from neglect, a lack of attention and America's overdose on materialism. This generation doesn't reflect its parents' values because its parents were too busy chasing bigger homes and second cars to teach it any values, or its parents were simply absent for a multitude of reasons.

My point is that the young people, from Jay Z to the kids in the Dolphins locker room to Matt Barnes, who think the N-word is a term of endearment or a word now devoid of its negative impact because of its popularity, are misguided in a way no previous American generation has been misguided.

Can you misguide a generation that has never been guided?

The values and perspectives pervasive in youth culture are not rooted in family. They're rooted in neglect, dysfunction and irresponsibility. The new normal should be rejected. Hearing the N-word, bitch, ho and other pejoratives tossed around inside public gathering spots should be disconcerting. The N-word's ascension to black America's favorite word in the dictionary is alarming. How a person defines himself or herself determines how he or she will be treated by the world.

I still use the N-word privately. I'm not proud of this fact. I would never defend my use of the word. I use it far less than I did a decade ago. I've been battling for years to eliminate it from my vocabulary. I object when anyone, regardless of color, uses the word around me. The N-word is like fast food or cigarettes. It's unhealthy. It is the foundational fertilizer at the root of the maladies plaguing black America. The word is more negatively powerful today than it was at its invention. It's a sign of the depth of our self-hatred.

Its defenders cannot rationally explain its importance. They just know they can't live without it.