This past week, former White House staffer and reality TV star Omarosa Manigault claimed to have heard President Trump say the “N” word. Indeed, she said she had heard him do so on a tape. Political pundits suggested that, if this tape existed, it could seriously damage the President’s reputation.
Really? With whom?
When it comes to the use of the “N” word, you can roughly divide white Americans into three distinct groups: those who regularly use the word, those who think of their abstention as a gift and those who find the word offensive and dehumanizing. For the sake of clarity, let me briefly discuss each of these groups and their probable response to a tape of the President using the “N” word.
In 2006, a poll found 8% of white people thought the use of the “N” word justifiable. While that small percentage may sound encouraging, the same poll also found that 46% of whites knew another white person who used the “N” word. So either that 8% really gets around or more people are using the “N” word than polling suggests. More damning, a 2012 poll found that 31% of all whites admitted to using the “N” word at least once in the past five years. A recent survey found that 39% of white Americans would support a candidate who used the “N” word. Based on these polls, about a third of the white population finds nothing objectionable about the “N” word.
Let’s face it. For many of Trump’s staunchest supporters, his use of the “N” word would bolster, rather than damage, his reputation. Such a tape would justify their own use of the word. More importantly, it would validate their worldview. Clearly, there is one group with whom the President’s popularity is nearly unanimous – white supremacists. For them, the use of the “N” word is a philosophical commitment to the dehumanization of people of color. They use this term precisely because they believe people of color are less human. Any thoughtful American should be deeply disturbed that the people who advocate white supremacy consider Trump an ally. Unfortunately, many Americans are not very thoughtful.
Those who tolerate this incongruity represent the second group of white Americans. While these people do not generally use the “N” word, they freely associate with those who do. They excuse the behavior of those who use the “N” word as uncouth or politically incorrect rather than for what it is – the dehumanization of another person. They are unlikely to challenge the use of the word or question the worldview of those who do. They may feign disgust with the President using the “N” word, but they will not find it disqualifying.
Sadly, they represent a large swath of white Americans who – though they avoid the word – have probably used it in a moment of anger or passion. Which means, under stress, they expose their true colors. The only significant difference between them and those who use the “N” word is their vocabulary. When it comes to worldview, they share a low opinion of people of color. They are polite racists. For them, not using the “N” word is a benevolence. They could have, but they didn’t. These are the people who complain, “If black people can say it, why can’t I?” To which, the proper response is simply, “Why would you want to?”
This brings us to the final group of white Americans – people who have no desire to diminish the value of people of color in any way. For these white people, the use of the “N” word is deeply offensive. We do not use it, even when angry or impassioned, and quickly challenge those who do. We understand that not using the “N’ word is not a noble sacrifice or act of kindness. It is the behavior of a mature human being. For a mature white American, the use of the “N” word disqualifies a person from any position of leadership, be it of a pizza company or our government.
Regrettably, the possibility that the President used the “N” word only confirms what we have known about his character. We have long ago recognized his many dog whistles. We know that terms like “ignorant, low IQ, dog, animal, sons of bitches” are simply surrogates for what the President calls people of color privately. We know that, should the tape be revealed, many white Americans will ignore, justify or diminish its significance. They will avoid the common response to many of Trump’s more outrageous claims, that “he is simply saying what many people think.”
Unfortunately, as in those other circumstances, they’re right.
In using the “N” word, Trump is simply saying what far too many white Americans think.