Support MTSU’s campaign to change the name of (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Hall

Students at MTSU (my alma mater) have resurrected the campaign to change the name of the ROTC building, currently named for Nathan Bedford Forrest—slave trader, Confederate war criminal, and first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

What follows is my effort to broadcast the campaign and provide reasons to endorse it.


Nathan Bedford Forrest: A racist sleazeball, even “for his times”

If the well-known facts about Forrest’s life aren’t enough to convince you he shouldn’t be memorialized, consider some less celebrated biographical gems:

(a) Forrest’s attitude toward what he did for a living was simply wicked. In one advertisement, he both boasted about separating black families and cruelly mocked female slaves’ vulnerability to being raped—bragging that he had captured the daughter of famous slave-turned-Northern-statesman Frederick Douglass, and she was “of the class known among dealers as a ‘likely girl’.”

(b) His final career was as a hyper-exploitative broker of (forced) black convict labor, on a pestilent island in conditions described as “worse than slavery.”

(c) His reputation as “the butcher of Fort Pillow” is well-deserved. First, nobody denies a massacre occurred, nor that Forrest was in charge. Before the attack, Forrest sent a note to the Union generals promising to massacre their forces if they didn’t surrender. And when they failed to surrender, they were indeed massacred; further details are fuzzy, but also unimportant. (In later years, when challenged about his crimes, his go-to response was to cruelly mock the slaughter, claiming that his men ate the black soldiers and he himself ate their murdered babies.)

(d) Finally, Forrest hacked a black field hand to death with an axe for the crime of refusing to drain a puddle quickly enough. This prompted the rest of his workers to mutiny, rat-holing Forrest in his own house by torch and pickaxe until the deputy could rescue him. (Forrest was tried for murder and acquitted only due to the corruption of a white judge.)

* * *

To address some common defenses of NBF and his imagery:

(i) But he was very good at something

NBF was perhaps the greatest American(?) cavalryman ever. But surely this is not enough to rate statues and nameplates. Think about it: Outside of contemporary pop culture, celebrity is inevitably attended by ‘greatness’ of some sort or another. This applies no less to the infamous: Hitler’s oratory skill is only the most famous example. Even, say, notorious serial killers only become so for being more clearly fastidious, dedicated, and brave than average folk.

Point being, if “he possessed some very good qualities” is your sole argument for memorializing Forrest, this would allow memorializing virtually anyone well-known enough to be considered. So clearly, more must be said. Some consideration of “the whole person” must be made.

(ii) But he changed in his later years

Forrest’s alleged penitence in later life is overblown. He only renounced the Klan because, as his best friend recounted, “we knew it would not be needed again.” Namely, his exit followed a particularly violent campaign of voter intimidation in which NBF heartily participated, and which won the South for the Democrats that election year. (Similar tactics would keep them winning for the next twenty election cycles.) This was a period when intense federal and state heat was causing many prominent persons whom no one doubts were racist and remained so to leave and “renounce” the Klan. This egocentric pragmatism should hardly be confused with a change of heart.

NBF’s late wish for the “advancement of the negro” had economic and political components, but it isn’t clear it ever had a moral one. He felt that things like trades training for black folks was good for business—and not just generally, but for his business. His ‘turnabout’ on race relations emerged apace with his plan to populate the inferior lands along his railroad with free black townships—which of course required black tradespeople, etc.

He further flirted with a political alliance of conservative blacks and Southern whites; only the entire, stated point of this was to counter the only political force dedicated to the unqualified “advancement” of the former, the Radicals in the Republican Party. The appeal to blacks was always cast in a “devil you know” mood: i.e., “Don’t ask for too much or you’ll stir up trouble with those guys and lose what you already have.”

In the end, “advancement” from some low baseline is one thing; full equality with whites is quite another. And NBF was clear to make the distinction until the day he died.

(iii) Let history be (or something)

Some argue that we should take a “neutral” stance toward historical artifacts: History happened this way, and there is no use denying it just to make ourselves feel good.

For instance, from the Change Forrest Hall campaign Facebook page:

ScreenshotNBF(First, I doubt the sincerity of those who make this argument—because they are inevitably the most vociferous defenders of NBF’s resume. That is, you can’t say history should stand “no matter what it was like” while at the same time saying “it should stand because it was like this.” But that’s a side point.)

Let’s be clear: The items in question aren’t historical artifacts. At least, not the way these people mean; they aren’t Civil War artifacts. The three contested representations of Forrest in Middle TN date to the late 1950s (Forrest Hall), the late 1970s (bust in the state Capitol) and late 1990s (the I-65 statue). Granted, these are artifacts about history, but so what? The blog post you’re reading is an artifact about history. Protest graffiti on a statue of a Civil War officer is an artifact about history. That status alone doesn’t render something untouchable.

In the end, these critics are confusing a representation with an honorarium. A Forrest nameplate doesn’t just give information about the past. It doesn’t just say “this happened.” It says, rather, “this happened, and it was good.” Of course, you’re free to say that Forrest’s legacy is a good one, all things considered. And we can talk about that. But drop the pretense to neutrality. This debate is necessarily about what we value—what we think is good. It has to be.

* * *

Conclusion: The real point here

All that said, I suggest that the technicalities of NBF’s biography are largely irrelevant to the question of whether to keep or remove his busts and nameplates. It is possible for someone’s image to function as a racist symbol whether or not he was always—or even ever—a nasty racist himself.

Ninety years after the Civil War’s end, the South saw an explosion of new Confederate iconography. Busts and statues of CSA heroes popped up all over. High schools adopted little rebel guy sports mascots. In 1961, the South Carolina legislature ‘suddenly’ elected to fly the Battle Flag over the statehouse.


The timing of this trend—plus the transcripts of the dedication ceremonies—show without a doubt that it functioned as a protest of the nascent black Civil Rights Movement, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools.

The choice to name MTSU’s military building after Nathan Bedford Forrest (1958) should be viewed in this context. As such the nameplate is “bigger” than Forrest himself and has a meaning independent of him. It was chosen to mock and dispirit black people struggling for human rights. In this sense, it functions as a racist symbol no matter the “real facts” of NBF’s life. There are other reasons, but this alone warrants the change.

[Come rally with us to get this done!]



At the very least


Paul Fromm is freaky as a frog with a moustache

Peep these NSFW pics of Fromm with his Nazi mistress here.

I mean, I’m no square, and perfectly aware certain married couples have “arrangements.” But (a) Fromm and his wife Diane do not, in fact, have such “arrangements,” and (b) he’s some kind of (albeit, given his white nationalism, heretical) evangelical Christian—he teaches at the “Soldiers of the Cross Training Institute” alongside Pastor Thomas Robb of the Christian Revival Center.

check miss lady's swastika medallion

check miss lady’s swastika medallion

Incidentally, Fromm and Robb are the chief organizers of the upcoming white nationalist festival in my backyard. I wrote about this here. You can read more about P-Smoov here.

Justice! (such as it is) for Jordan Davis, who was murdered for being black

[Analysis to follow. I leave you with this sentiment in the mean.]

Mike Brown vs. Darren Wilson: We don’t need to “wait for all the facts to come out” before taking sides

[Jase Short at The Ansible argues that if police violence is systematic and legally-entrenched, self-defense is warranted. The following builds on that thesis, with my thanks.]


It is undeniable that police kill and injure at a higher rate than the civilian population. This is typically defended on grounds of special workplace hazard: It isn’t that the cops are so homicidal and injurious; they just spend so much time dealing with all the other people who are.

But this fails as an explanation. For one, it can’t explain why cops kill and injure more in their civilian capacities too. (It isn’t the stress, either. Other high-stress jobs don’t show this.) Nor does it explain why police are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at a lower rate than the rest of the population when they act out. Moreover, these trends are stable across periods of greater and lesser crime, and across all variety of policy changes designed to abate the trend. Presently, the average officer is literally, mathematically more likely to provoke a deadly incident than to prevent one.

The problem is, of course, concentrated in poor communities of color (especially black) like Ferguson, MO. In the US, a black man is summarily executed by a police or security officer at a rate of about one every day and a half.

But violence is only the most dramatic expression of a generalized climate of harassment: Last year, the city of Ferguson issued ten thousand more arrest warrants than there are actual people living there. This is almost entirely for frivolous crimes: tinted windows, underpaying a parking ticket by $20, or using a trash pickup service other than the one designated for one’s area. The municipal court system has to pump these cases through at an average of one every 12 seconds.

Over the years, the city has replaced an increasingly large percentage of tax revenue with income from civil fines—to the point where now, they have to harass to meet the budget. The abuse has become—in the most literal sense—institutionalized.

Again, this falls mainly upon Ferguson’s black citizens, who are detained, ticketed, fined and arrested in numbers far outpacing their population share. They are far more likely to be pulled over than whites, while far less likely to be found with anything illegal.

(Note: In “high-stop” areas like Ferguson, or New York City under “stop and frisk,” the percentage of detentions that actually lead to arrest and conviction for any crime are exceedingly low. This should tell us something about the police shootings, where “the facts” are often murkier: If we know the average victim of “soft” police harassment is innocent, then, is it reasonable to assume that the average victim who is killed by police was guilty—that is, was shot with good reason? Not likely.)

* * *

Unless this is the grandest web of coincidence in history, white cops are targeting the black citizens of Ferguson. It isn’t a matter of uncharacteristic “bad apples,” but systematic.

Some observers have likened this kind of police presence to a foreign occupying army. One way to test if this comparison is true, or just hyperbole, is to ask: If it isn’t an occupying force, how would an occupying force behave differently? If we can’t answer, the “resemblance” is one of identity.

* * *

To paraphrase The Ansible: It follows that the black citizens of Ferguson are entitled to self-defense, up to and including that of physical resistance; and the more “fervent” responses of the protesters should be assessed in this light.

But I would add two points to this assessment:

(1) It also follows that Michael Brown’s own behavior, leading up to his death, should also be viewed in this light. (Whatever that behavior may have been.) This is why it doesn’t matter whether Mike Brown attacked Darren Wilson first. The Ferguson protests are not solely about the actions of Darren Wilson; so the justness of the community response doesn’t depend on “the facts” of this particular shooting death. Resistance is justified apart from this incident, and was justified the day before it happened. And that goes no less for Michael Brown. Whether he understood it as such, an attack on Wilson would have constituted self-defense in a larger sense.

(2) The “facts” we already know about Brown’s shooting tell us quite enough. The Ferguson police department has admitted Officer Wilson fired at least once on Brown (missing the target) while the latter was running away. No matter what happened before or after—even if Wilson was later justified in killing Brown—this is a crime. This is attempted murder. Wilson may be guilty of more, but he cannot be guilty of less.


The critical error behind almost all reasoning about “racial profiling” for terrorists

Something like that.

Proponents of racial (ethnic, religious) profiling for terrorists inevitably begin by citing the same demographic comparison. In the words of notorious racist Ann Coulter,

“The perpetrators [of terrorist attacks on Americans since 9/11] have all had the same eye color, hair color, skin color and half of them have been named Muhammad…This is not racial profiling; it’s a description of the suspect.”

Cheekiness aside, the argument is simple: A terrorist is more likely to come from x-racial-ethnic-religious group rather than groups y or z; therefore, we are warranted in searching for terrorists among persons who are (or appear to be) from that group particularly. This might entail singling out men fitting this description for baggage or ID checks in subways, or funneling them through a separate check-in line at airports.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Coulter’s data on terrorists is correct—that most terrorists come from this Arab/Muslim sector (though in fact they don’t). Let us also assume there are no logistical or moral obstacles to profiling (also dubious).

My objection, rather, concerns the form of the argument. In short, Coulter’s numbers could be 100% sound, and it still wouldn’t make racial profiling an effective technique for finding terrorists.

* * *

The problem is the profiling argument gives way too much weight to the (statistical) relationship of ethnic groups to one another—that is, to the percentage of terrorists within one group as compared to the percentage in each of the others. I contend this relation—the very lynchpin of the profiling argument—has precisely zero relevance to the business of hunting terrorists. If we’re thinking properly, what should matter instead is the statistical relationship of terrorists to their own racial groups.

To put this visually (proportions not accurate):


The ‘profilers’ only care about how the beige sliver on the left compares in size to the sliver on the right: If the right is bigger, they say, we should search A for terrorists, rather than C. But this comparison is irrelevant. What matters is not which sliver is larger but how largein absolute termsthe larger slice actually is.

Put another way, the most this kind of comparison by itself could tell us is that terrorists are unevenly distributed among ethnic groups. What it cannot tell is whether terrorists are represented in any one ethnic group highly enough to make profiling a viable technique for finding them. Just as only knowing your meal is bigger than your neighbor’s will not tell you whether it is big enough to satisfy you. (For both meals could still be very small.)

Testing profiler logic: Two analogies

Some everyday examples of similar reasoning should further clarify.

Analogy #1: Children from “broken homes” are by some percentage more likely to become serial killers later in life than children from two-parent homes. This hardly means that shaking down a bunch of people with divorced parents would be a wise deployment of police resources. Even if 100% of serial killers had divorced parents, those products of divorce who actually commit serial murder are such a tiny minority among all children of divorce that the strategy would still be suspect.

Clearly, the key statistic isn’t (i) how many offenders come from divorce, but (ii) how many people who come from divorce actually turn out to be offenders. Focusing on the first stat only tells us that one set of odds is greater than some other set of odds; it tells us nothing about how good the second set of odds—the one we are banking on—actually is. We may as well say that buying two Powerball tickets has a greater chance of winning millions than buying just one; that’s true, but it doesn’t make buying one or buying two very likely to yield a winner. Likelier is still miles away from likely.

* * *

Analogy #2: Imagine we have a haystack which has some probability of containing a needle. (Let’s say, there is some probability that one of the straws is a needle.) Let this equal the probability that a given, random person fitting the “terrorist profile” is a terrorist; that is, drawing a random straw is as likely to yield a needle as detaining a random “Muslim” is likely to yield a terrorist. Let us assume this method of finding needles is ineffective, counterproductive, even (somehow) immoral; also, that we have some far better method of finding needles in haystacks—using magnets, X-ray, floating the straw on water so the needle sinks, etc. We still want to root out needles, but have long abandoned the strategy of drawing random straws.

Now, imagine we discover that all along there has been a second haystack nearby which has an even lower probability of yielding a needle than our haystack. Perhaps we discover several more, each with some probability of success lower than the original, but still greater than zero.

It has become clear that a needle is more likely to come from the first haystack than from any of the others. Still, it would be irrational in the highest to conclude that we should, on this basis, resume our random straw-draws. The simple fact that a less promising haystack exists does not magically make checking this stack a good idea, if it wasn’t a good idea before. If an activity’s probability of success is extremely low, it isn’t made better just because there exist other activities whose probability of success is even lower. (That’d be crazy, right?)


Profiling advocates are confusing better odds with decent odds. The simple fact that terrorists are more likely to come from Arab/Muslim men than from some other group doesn’t mean that the likelihood of randomly finding terrorists among Arab/Muslim men is very good at all. And that is the real question.

So: Just how good is that that likelihood? I haven’t exactly crunched the numbers; you can do the math if you like. (The burden of proof is on the profilers anyhow.) But there are millions of persons in the world who fit Coulter’s “profile,” and the number of these who commit terrorist acts against Americans is, in relative terms, very nearly zero. Even fewer do so in those stereotypical ways that profiling would address. Fewer yet operate in the U.S., where ours laws can actually penetrate.

Clearly, we are dealing with numbers akin to those “children of divorce” who commit serial killing. It is quite likely that if we incarcerated every other Muslim male in the world, it would register nothing in practical terms to diminish the odds of the next terror attack. Yes, we can theoretically halve a .000003% chance of something. Getting married later in life will halve one’s chances of committing suicide someday. Hell, there is shit you could do right now to seriously diminish your chances of being brainwashed by a cult or eaten by a mountain lion. I mean, Who gives a shit? Differences of this infinitesimal grade do not drive anybody’s consideration of anything in the real world; far less should they drive national security policy.


Bonus: The above aside, profiling is still a shitty idea

This is not to mention that radical Islamists come in all “colors” and (duh) will easily work around any profile we make.

In addition, ethnic profiling is counterproductive; it alienates the very communities which are most critical for intelligence on (and testimony against) the potential attackers that move and live among and gain cover from them. As social psychologist Tom R. Tyler masterfully argues in his seminal Why People Obey the Law, individuals who feel they are singled out unfairly by law enforcement tend to avoid contact with the latter as much as possible; at the same time, they internalize this treatment, minimizing their stake in the system, giving them less incentive not to offend.

Finally, as with finding needles in haystacks, we have alternative strategies for fighting terrorism that are superior to profiling. Granted, jihadists will cite a number of gripes against the US if you ask them. Some of these concern cultural factors like women’s liberation and sexy music and movies. But according to the evidence, these aren’t the “root” reasons they turn to terror. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the violence is above all a response to US foreign policy in and toward Muslim countries and populations. Bin Laden, for instance, clarified his grievances across many years in interviews with Robert Fisk.

Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror summarizes nicely the main Islamist concerns; to paraphrase:

  • U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Muslim Palestine
  • U.S. and other Western troops in every state of the Arabian peninsula
  • U.S. support for Russia, India, China, Phillipines and Uzbekistan against their Muslim populations and militants
  • U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low
  • U.S. military and economic sanctions on Muslim nations (sometimes through the U.N.): Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Somalia
  • U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and despotic Muslim governments (often a vehicle for the above concerns)
  • And now, via the WOT: U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; incarceration without trial of thousands of Muslims suspected of being mujahideen; pressure on Muslim governments to track, control and limit Muslim’s donations to charitable organizations; pressure on these governments to tailor school curricula to give a more pro-Western brand of Islam

Thankfully for us, these concerns are quite reasonable, technically solvable, and are morally “overdetermined”—that is, they should be met for a host of reasons even aside from fighting terror.

Debunking “Che Guevara, racist” again

A tertiary effect of Mandela’s death has been the reactivation of right-wing criticisms of Che Guevara, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary hero. In an effort to slur both, the South African leader has been liberally quoted praising the latter. Critics have drawn their own seedy parallels between the two legacies, some dubbing Mandela “the Che Guevara of Africa.”

The “Che as mass-murderer” trope has long been an anti-communist staple. Only more recently are critics eager to establish that Che was also an anti-black racist. From what I can tell, this conceit is directly traceable to the “scholarship” of Humberto Fontova, a Cuban expat numbskull whose sources are almost entirely reducible to (a) Che’s travel diaries, predating his revolutionary turn, and (b) “shit some Cuban person told me.”

The evidence for Che’s racism is a single sentence from those diaries—one which, by the way, Fontova typically misquotes. As recounted (correctly) by Che’s biographer:

“The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.”

So. What to make of this?

In context, this is a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black persons; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvinistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a nice vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, two years prior to Brown vs. Board of Education formally ended segregation in the US.

Most importantly, to repeat, the quote is all we ever get. From this alone Fontova and his appropriators deduce Che’s racism. They thereby summarize the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”

Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?

We can debate the severity of the statement. The important point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:

In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:

“Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.”

In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was yet talking about that issue.

Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)


Che with his Congolese army

Che also led the integration of Cuban schools, beaches and other facilities years before the island’s American neighbor. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is still living and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)

* * *

The charges of racism are laughable enough. But equally so, the straining uses to which this fantasy is put. The slander is clearly an effort to discredit not just the man but his entire legacy and those global efforts which continue to draw inspiration from it. This amounts to a clownish hyper-idealism by which the man’s inner feelings are lent the power to taint whatever he may have touched. Not only, as we have seen, is a diary blurb not “Che”; but neither is Che himself “the Cuban Revolution.” Whatever unsavory ideas Che might have carried around in his head, the Revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in an historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s own actions:

The greatest literacy bump in human history occurred after the Revolution. Illiteracy went from nearly a quarter of the population to less than four percent in under a year. This mostly affected rural Cubans of color.

The Revolution instituted an immediate 50 per cent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.

Finally, just as we cannot equate a youthful, renounced journal scribble with “Che,” neither can we equate Che, nor his Revolution, with “socialism.” It is certainly possible for either to have wronged and the socialist project remain theoretically viable. To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load his critics want them to. Social science and activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.

* * *

I will briefly address the other peg of the right-wing assault, the “Che killed a bunch of people” modality. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution—sure as hell not Fontova’s dumb ass. In any case, Che did run a prison for a brief time, and some people were tried and executed there. Unless these critics are against the death penalty in every conceivable case whatsoever, they must give us more here. They must critique the trials themselves, the evidence used and so forth.

Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode.

Justifiably or not, however, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.”

“If black people can say the N-word, why can’t I?” (and related delusions)

White people frequently deplore the asymmetrical “permissions” that seem to maintain between blacks and whites as it concerns various racially-charged speech acts. This reaction is, to paraphrase Bentham, bullshit on stilts. The following is my attempt to clarify the issues behind this observation.

Two distinct types of speech act bear exploring: (1) Referring to black folks by the N-word (hereafter rendered as “N—”); and (2) making certain statements critical of the black community. (By the latter I mean some variant of the idea that blacks are not tugging quite hard enough at their own bootstraps—e.g. they are too complacent in poverty, crime-prone, wedded to Affirmative Action and welfare, etc.)

The complaint, of course, is that blacks tend to “get away with” these speech acts—say, rappers using “N—” in their songs, or Bill Cosby’s cantankerous rant about the self-destructive features of the black underclass on his 2004 speaking tour. On the other hand, it is alleged, if whites said the same things publicly, they would incur charges of racism.

I will contend that both speech acts do dictate different rules for use by blacks and whites, and this is not in the least inconsistent or “unfair.” However, the reasons for the asymmetry in each case are distinct. I will treat them in turn.

(1) “If blacks can use the N-word with each other, why is it offensive when whites use it?”

The answer to this question is deceptively simple: These two groups are not using the same term. It is clear from actual patterns of usage that the traditional, derogatory use of “N—” has developed a second meaning that persists alongside the original. Granted, the two terms are spelled the same, and share a common etymology, but no matter. (Think of “hard” as in firm and “hard” as in difficult.) The meanings are distinct, and so are their rules for use.[2]

That a term could have group-asymmetrical rules for use should not be controversial. For instance, my siblings and I can use the term “Mom” to address my mother, but my mailman can’t. I can call my wife “baby,” but my neighbor better not. And nobody finds this the least bit unfair. “Mom,” “baby” and “N—” alike are relational terms. Using them properly depends on who the speaker and hearer are in relation to one another; and, since not everyone can stand in every relation to everyone else (my mailman simply cannot become my sibling), proper use depends on who they are.

When commonly used among blacks, “N—” is effectively shorthand for “my N—”; that is, “my fellow bearer of the distinct black American experience” (or some such). The asymmetry exists because, not sharing this experience, there is no obvious way for a white person to employ this term properly. He can, however, use it in the original, purely descriptive, derogatory sense: For him, nobody can be “my N—”; they can only be “a N—.” And calling someone a N— is always offensive, even (as is technically possible) when it is done among blacks.

This also shows why it is offensive to mandate, as my white father did of the integrated high school homeroom he led, that “If I can’t say it, they can’t say it.” If “N—” means something akin to “my fellow traveler,” banning it deprives an oppressed group of a term of solidarity.[2] This would be at least as bad as telling my father he couldn’t call his male church-mates “Brother such-and-such” because non-Christians couldn’t do the same (though white Southern Baptists are hardly an oppressed group).

(2) “If blacks can criticize the black community, why is it racist when whites do?”

The second type of speech act is more complex. For one, blacks can’t always “get away with” this any more than whites; for instance, Bill Cosby took considerable flak for his words. But the asymmetry is still there: Cosby was by and large not charged with being racist; however, whites making similar criticisms often earn this charge.

Many white people take this as evidence of a sinister contradiction. Two observers summarize the issue as follows on a video post:

[If] a white person making exactly the same criticism of African-Americans [would] automatically be a racist [while a black person would not]…that would imply that the truth of a statement about a certain group is dependent on the race of the person making the statement, as opposed to the inherent truth of that statement itself.

This argument, I contend, is deeply flawed. We can agree that different speech rules for different races implies that something about a statement is “dependent on the race of” the speaker. But it hardly follows that this ‘something’ has to be the truth of that statement. This would only follow if truth-value were the only feature of language. Yes, a statement can only be true or false; but the use or application of statements—discourse—can be so much more. Discourse brings an ethical dimension to bear: In addition to true or false, it can be good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, productive or unproductive (even counterproductive)—and the list goes on. No, truth doesn’t change when speakers change, but other values do. And these values can affect what “can” and “can’t” be said every bit as much as truth and falsity.

In other words, being true is simply not enough to justify a speech act. On reflection, it is surprising anyone could doubt this: Clearly, I cannot stand up and repeatedly scream “two plus two equals four!!!” during the reading of a dead relative’s eulogy. No doubt the statement is true—but the act is a problem. While that speech act makes me boorish and insensitive, the same statement used differently (an elementary math lecture, perhaps) could be fine.

As we saw with the N-word, not every person can perform every speech act. I can say, “Hello, Mom” to my mother, but you can’t. You can mouth the same statement, but the act wouldn’t amount to a proper greeting. For another example: At the above funeral, it would be very appropriate for close friends to say nice things about the deceased. But someone who had exploited, abused and talked poorly about him in life “can’t” stand up and make the same speech. Again, he could utter the words, but their insincerity would ensure that the act they are used for is not a proper eulogy.

Clearly then, what makes a speech act OK is partly about who the speaker is. His identity can determine what he “can” and “can’t” say. (And this identity is partly about the relation he bears to the hearer).

I will argue that this has everything to do with the racial asymmetry we are discussing. To do this, a digression is necessary.

(a) The psychology of accepting unsavory beliefs about oneself

The following points set up the argument:

1. To accept a belief, one must first consider it; these are two distinct steps.

2. Every consideration is risky; it burns up precious time and cognitive and emotional resources. Plus, when what is being considered is something bad about oneself, one risks pain and shame if it turns out to be true—the greater pain and shame the greater the “bad” being considered. Therefore, to seriously consider something, it must hold some initial promise. It must appear to be “worth” the work and risk.

3. With most beliefs, the stakes are so low, the risk and investment so small, one can afford to enter the consideration stage casually. Asking black folks to entertain that they are complicit in a cultural pathology is not such a case. First, the idea is not self-evident; it is “large” and complex; it is extremely counter-intuitive and cuts against the instinct to think well of oneself and those one loves. Second, the emotional stakes are damn near existential. Serious consideration would require a time-consuming, soul-searching wrangle, the sort of which one undergoes in the course of therapy. Therefore, entering this process will be justified only if the belief holds strong advance promise of being true.

4. Of course, something about the proposed belief has to make it seem promising. Theoretically, a number of things could do this: The idea could just make sense on its face, or something about the speaker or method of communication could convey authority and credibility.

5. But black people have heard it all before. If the message is true, its truth alone hasn’t been enough to make the advice “stick.” Thus, the surface content of the critique—the statements themselves—will not justify serious consideration by black folks.

6. Only the context in which the statements are delivered—the speech act using them—could hold this promise. This means either the old message must be presented in a new way, or by a speaker with some special credibility.

7. It is unlikely that white people will find a radically new way of saying the same thing—partly because (as we shall see) it is unlikely that the mode of communication was the problem in the first place. Therefore, credibility—who the speaker is or appears to be—will be key.

8. The persistence of white racism makes it practically impossible that a white person could carry the credibility needed to compel serious consideration of the belief in question on the part of black folks.

* * *

The last point is the least self-evident, so I will argue for it separately. Thus, the next step is to demonstrate the persistence of white racism; then, how this connects to the rest of the argument.

(b) The white critic is likely to be racist because white people are likely to be racist

I can’t consider every single facet of racism here. For now, I will suggest that white people tend to fear blacks and view them as aggression-prone—and that this fear is irrational. This is not all it means to be racist, but will suit our purposes.

Thirty-five years of social science confirms this thesis. Tim Wise, anti-racist author and activist, catalogued this data in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates arrest flap. Drawing from his article, we can summarize the results of this research as follows:

* Whites tend to fear blacks. One study hooked participants to an MRI scan and flashed images of faces to them. A black face shown even subliminally triggered the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety (the amygdala) far more than a white face.

* Whites tend to view ambiguous conduct as (more) aggressive when performed by a black person than the same conduct when performed by a white person. A study divided participants into two groups, with each shown a video of a black and white actor arguing. The videos were identical, except in the one shown to whites, the black actor shoved the white actor; in the video shown to blacks, the white man did the shoving. The action was identical in force, etc. Three out of four whites reported the “black shove” as aggressive or violent, while few whites (or blacks) saw the same “white shove” this way.

* Whites tend to manufacture false memories of aggressive behavior by blacks. One study read the facts of criminal assault cases to mock jurors. Days later, large majorities of white participants recalled blacks in the stories as committing aggressive conduct, even when this conduct never took place; they were far less likely to recall whites in the stories as behaving aggressively, even when they were.

* Whites tend to disproportionately presume guilt on behalf of black suspects. One study screened TV news reports of criminal activity in which the skin tone of each perpetrator was digitally altered. Large majorities of whites were more likely to remember the perpetrator’s race when the accompanying image was black; often, they misremembered the perpetrator as black when he wasn’t! Another study found that whites were far more likely to presume guilt when shown a mug shot of a black suspect than a white one, even when the facts of the case were identical.

And most importantly,

* These fears are not idle; they affect the way whites act: A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology used a video simulation to test reaction to hostile threats. Participants identified guns much faster when carried by blacks than by whites. They misidentified benign objects like tools as guns more often when carried by blacks than whites. Whites proved far more likely to draw upon and shoot unarmed blacks engaged in benign behavior than armed whites who were engaged in menacing behavior.

* * *

I would hope it the irrationality of these tendencies is self-evident. However, some “rational racists” argue that these fears are justified due to a greater propensity toward crime on the part of blacks. The figures they cite are always due to a combination of overpolicing, overprosecution, and outright poor accounting. For now, I will respond that, even on the cooked stats, the likelihood that a given black person represents a criminal threat in a given exchange is quite nearly zero. This in itself makes the fear irrational—and therefore racist.

* * *

Here is the upshot of all this: Again, for blacks to seriously consider what these critics are alleging, the credibility of the critic is key, as the message is not new. Something about the identity of the messenger will have to make the difference.

There is a high statistical likelihood that a given white critic of “stereotypical black failings” is racist. This creates a classic conflict of interest: The critic’s audience simply cannot know if his message is borne of sincere concern (which can certainly coexist with subconscious racist ideas), or simple racism.

Our video hosts, along with many white observers, cast the issue as whether a white person is “automatically…a racist” when he criticizes the black community. But this is something of a strawman; we should say instead: The conflict of interest makes it unclear how to tell whether or not the critique is racist. That is, it makes it impossible to tell that it isn’t racist.

A couple things follow: First, it is perfectly sensible to ask whether “the same” criticism is racist when it comes from a white person rather than a black person. Indeed, given the social science, it probably is. Second, it is rational for blacks to dismiss these criticisms when they come from whites, given the probability that the critics are racist. In this sense, the criticism becomes effectively racist. That is, for purposes of serious consideration, it is rational to treat it as such. For the same reasons, it is rational to dismiss criticism from someone we know is probably motivated by jealousy, sadism, a family feud, or a vindictive effort to get back at us for criticizing them first—if again all we are going by is the messenger’s credibility.

The reverse also holds. If one’s audience has good reason to assume he is merely speaking out of jealousy, sadism, vindictiveness, etc., one bears a responsibility to keep quiet—even if he is not in fact sadistic, jealous, etc., and even if he is saying “true” things. In that person’s mouth, the statement is functionally indistinguishable from a sadistic (etc.) attack. The same goes for racism. And this is why whites “can’t say it.” One ought not to put black people in a position where they all but have to take something as racist. One should no more do this than he should make openly racist comments.

* * *

Postscript: I have been writing on the assumption that white criticisms of blacks are true. This was only for the sake of argument. I would like to stress that these critiques aren’t true. There is no evidence of a cultural pathology whereby blacks remain an underclass due to their own lack of motivation, penchant for hands-outs, proneness to violence, or anything else in their culture or DNA. The research always suggests that a lack of meaningful, secure, dignified, long-term economic (and other) opportunities in urban sectors causes higher rates of unemployment among blacks, leading to higher rates of some negative welfare indicators.


[1] I should say: The traditional, derogatory usage of “N—” has developed at least one other meaning beyond the original. There is a neutral use, used simply to make reference to fellow black persons, as well as a more affectionate one, typically used with a possessive, for those black (and occasionally non-black) persons endeared to the speaker. Also: What I’ve called the second usage is sometimes rendered as “N—a” or “—ah” rather than “N—er.”

[2] One is free to disagree that blacks constitute an “oppressed group.” But this for another post.