Obama, Charleston and the N-Word

"The President's use of the n-word is not the issue."

June 22, 2015, 8:57 PM
PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks during an event with Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative fellows, June 1, 2015, in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks during an event with Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative fellows, June 1, 2015, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

— -- President Obama said n***** on the radio and now the country is all a buzz.

What does this mean?

Was it appropriate?

What about the children?

Well forgive me for not seeing the usage of the word as a seismic event in today’s political landscape, especially given the context in which it was used by the president:

"Racism, we are not cured of it," he said in an interview Monday with comedian Marc Maron. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say n***** in public."

Not exactly breaking news given that of the reported 300,000 members of Stormfront -- the largest white supremacist website in the world -- two-thirds are Americans. Or better yet, pour yourself a cup of coffee and read the lengthy manifesto Dylann Roof purportedly wrote before entering Mother Emanuel church Wednesday night.

And if you’re one of those people who like think racism is dying off with older generations--Roof is only 21 years old.

While President Obama's use of the n-word was purposeful and provocative, it is not the story here. Racism is the story -- still.

Those people killed in Mother Emanuel are not dead because of the n-word. They are dead because of the ideology connected to it. Hate that has been legislated from a shout to a whisper is still hate. A spokesman from The Council of Conservative Citizens, which is mentioned in the purported manifesto, told ABC News that "we of course categorically condemn his act, but that doesn't mean his motives weren't entirely legitimate."

But if you must get excited over a public official using that word, how about this: "There are four kinds of people in this world -- black people, white people, red necks, and n*****." That was Charleston County Magistrate James Gosnell in 2003, while in court during a bond hearing, earning him a reprimand.

That name should sound familiar.

He is the same judge who offered up the tone-deaf observation that Roof’s family members were victims in last week’s racially-motivated massacre, in the same breath he spoke about the grieving loved ones of the nine innocent people Roof allegedly admitted to killing.

The President used the n-word in dismantling the notion that politically correct language in public spaces meant the effects of 400-plus years of legislated and systemic racism had been scrubbed clean from our daily lives. I wonder what 2016 presidential hopeful Rick Perry thought each time he drove by the word “N*****head” which was painted near the entrance of his family’s hunting camp.

We’re so easily distracted and that cultural characteristic vexes me.

The tears are not even dried and we’re already diverting attention to a new shiny object as if hearing a black man say the n-word in public is a complete shock to the system. I get it, he’s the president, but let’s not act as if our ears are pure. I tend to be more concerned about the potential damage from the white people in leadership positions who may be saying the word in private. I tend to think when it’s used in those circles it’s far more nefarious.

On the same day Roof allegedly killed nine black people in the name of white supremacy, two police officers in a small town in Alabama were suspended after allegations surfaced that they were members of a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center said was white supremacist.

I repeat: the exact same day.

The group, the League of the South, denied that it was a hate group.

The debate over use of the n-word always rears its head when someone of note uses it. I don’t mind having the discussion because it is an ugly word that I wish would go away. But far too often that discussion overshadows more significant issues that continue to plague the black community, and as a result undermine race relations. Since 1972 the unemployment rate for blacks versus their white counterparts continues to hold at a ratio of 2:1. According to Pew Research, the incarceration rate for black men is 6:1 compared to white men. It is these sorts of numbers that should generate buzz, not the number of times a president drops the n-word.

Because truth be told, we all know Obama’s not the first.

LZ Granderson is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.