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On Senator Byrd And "White Niggers"


While Tony Snow is an otherwise very good host we were really disappointed with his controversial interview with Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) on Fox News Sunday last week. After Senator Byrd uttered the now-infamous phrase, " There are white niggers", we waited with anticipation to see whether Mr. Snow would actually ask Byrd to define that term. We were disappointed, and unless Fox edited the tape, Snow allowed Sen. Byrd to get away without answering the pivotal question, "What is a nigger?"

Of course, so many people would like to project shock and horror after hearing the "n-word", as it is now referred to in colloquial expression, but we know better. An untold number of Whites and certainly Blacks hear and use that word, in usually private settings, every day. So for this editorial, we can dispense with perpetuating that charade.

For some Whites, a nigger is any Black person. For other Whites, a nigger is well, you know, those other Blacks who commit crimes and drink alcohol, smoke crack and whose mere presence brings down property values in the neighborhood. To them, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson could never be niggers.

And for yet another group of Whites, who do not otherwise use the word, a nigger is any Black male who wants to marry their daughter - up until that proposition, all men were created equally. For some Blacks, a nigger is any Black person, except their mother. For other Blacks, a nigger is any Black person who they don't like.

For some Black hip-Hop artists, a nigger is any black male.

Some Black people believe that "niggers" are the sub-humans that White slave-masters produced - human beings who came from Africa but who lost their names, land, religion and diet as a result of the peculiar institution.

Obviously, the term "nigger" means different things to different people.

But when Sen. Byrd used the word and Tony Snow failed to follow-up with a question for clarity, we were deprived of knowing which category Senator Byrd fit in, on the White side.

We can only wonder. Since he said "there are white niggers" we could conclude that he thinks that the term "nigger" refers to a state of mind. But we can't be sure, as his use of the phrase could have also meant that the term "niggers" can only refer to Blacks, which is why he had to put White in front of the term in the first place.

Now in all honesty, we have to conclude, as many commonly argue, that the term nigger has gained acceptance in social settings, of either the all-Black or White variety depending upon the context in which it is used.

If you are White and say, in an exclusive all or predominately White country club, you can use the term, with those who hear you, knowing that you would never use the word in public or in racially-mixed audiences and that the only people who would truly be offended with your use of the word are perhaps the hired help on the premises who just happen to be all or mostly Black.

If you are Black and say, among your all-Black sorority Sisters and fraternity Brothers, you can use the term, with those who hear you knowing that you would never use the word in public or in racially-mixed audiences and that the only people who would truly be offended with your use of the word are perhaps, the members of the rival sorority and fraternity who you are referring to.

But using the term, if you are white, in an all-Black setting can get you in trouble.

I remember I was once told the story of a tour bus filled with members of an all- Black Hip-Hop group and entourage, where the "n-word" was being used rather freely, acrobatically bouncing off of the walls of the bus being, flipped and bounced in a variety of ways and with numerous nuances.

It just so happened, that one day, the White bus driver of the all-Black bus decided that he too, would use the term "nigger". So, he did just that, in a manner similar to the way others had masterfully used the word for several days, in his presence.

From what I was told, this bus driver used the word without even realizing he had done it and walked off of the bus. He left behind a bus with deafening silence, filled with Black men who knew they had created the atmosphere for the "n-word" to fall from the lips of anyone who was around them. While they felt the bus driver had violated a taboo, their guilt prevented them from approaching the bus driver about his articulation.

Could that be what happened last week in Black America as Senator Byrd waltzed through an entire week of news, relatively free of criticism and outrage over his use of the dreaded "n-word", a word that everyone claims to detest? Or could it be that Black people have assigned a new qualification to Whites who use the "n-word" - that somehow it maybe OK for a White man to use the term "nigger" provided that he had the letter "D" affixed to his name indicating his political party affiliation.

Certainly, the John Ashcroft supporters took notice, wondering how it was acceptable to use the word "nigger" and to have once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan if you are a White Democratic Senator, but somehow not acceptable if you read or dare give an interview to Southern Partisan magazine.

Could it be that the "R" attached to John Ashcroft's name is more diabolical in the eyes of Black Democrats than Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV)'s use of the actual word, "nigger" or his past KKK affiliation?

Maybe Shelby Steele is correct to say that many Blacks, particularly in the civil rights movement, now define themselves first and foremost in terms of their political affiliation.

We never will know what Senator Byrd meant when he uttered those 4 famous words and because of that, and the lack of the usual traditional knee-jerk reaction by Black civil rights leaders we were all deprived of an opportunity to plum the depths of the definition of what a "nigger" or "white nigger" really is.

Was Senator Byrd referring to the legendary poor white trash (PWT)? Did he have any culturally degenerate white person in mind? Or was he specifically referring to the millions of White youth who listen to Hip-Hop music who freely use the "n-word" and who are not so affectionately referred to as "wiggers"?

Some may just want to know was Senator Byrd referring to Eminem? Some may dispute that suggestion being that Eminem has a White wife and never uses the word "nigger" in his rhymes, unlike most of his Black counterparts.

And finally could it be that Senator Byrd had President Clinton in mind as a qualified "white nigger"? After all, Senator Byrd has very little respect for Clinton - as he made clear in the Fox interview. And when one couples that fact with the belief held by many that President Clinton is the first Black President, one can only wonder...

Oh well, maybe we are just making too much of this and are being too hard on Tony Snow. And maybe we were off base to expect white liberals and Black Democrats to oppose Senator Byrd in a manner similar to that in which they opposed John Ashcroft. Or could it be that we were wrong to think that the use of the word "nigger" by the most respected man in the US Senate (in the opinion of many) would have sparked a fierce public debate?

Is it just us or did we all miss something last week?


Cedric Muhammad

Monday, March 12, 2001

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