An ugly twist on modern use of the N-word

June 04, 2006|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- No transcript is known to survive, but it is reasonable to assume that when a mob of white men lynched a black man named Sam Hose, cut off his fingers, ears and genitals and skinned his face in 1899, they used the N-word.

Similarly, though there's no recording of the attack, it's likely that when a pregnant black woman named Mary Turner had her fetus slashed out of her, then was stomped to death by a white mob in 1918, the N-word was there.

By contrast with Mr. Hose and Ms. Turner, 23-year-old Glenn Moore got off easy. He was only beaten with a baseball bat last year in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, N.Y.

His principal attacker, 19-year-old Nicholas Minucci, admits using the N-word while teeing off on Mr. Moore in the dark hours of a late June morning.

The question a jury must decide is: Does that make this a hate crime? If jurors find the attack was indeed motivated by bigotry, the law provides that harsher penalties can be leveled against Mr. Minucci.

No such statute existed during the lifetimes of Ms. Turner and Mr. Hose, but if it had, it's doubtful anyone would have been conflicted over calling their murders hate crimes. But things have changed since then.

It is defense attorney Albert Gaudelli's rather novel contention that a white man beating a black one with a bat while using the most noxious of racial epithets is not prima facie evidence of racial hatred. As he told prospective jurors when the trial began just over two weeks ago, the N-word is used all the time in rap music and among young people as a friendly greeting. The word has changed, he said.

"At one time, it had only one meaning, as a pejorative term, but today it means many things," he told them. And he added, "The word in and of itself does not establish bias. Does everyone agree with that?" According to a reporter, the would-be jurors murmured "faint agreement."

Tellingly, Mr. Gaudelli never actually uttered this harmless word himself.

If you are looking for angels in this case, by the way, you do so in vain. The alleged victim was reportedly in the neighborhood with a group of friends looking for a car to steal. And the alleged attacker is a real piece of work: Convicted of shooting paintballs at a group of Sikhs on Sept. 11, 2001, charged in the 2002 stabbing of a Queens teenager. Unemployed, but an associate of the notorious Gotti family, he roams the streets of Howard Beach in a $60,000 Cadillac Escalade.

The neighborhood, of course, is already notorious in racial lore as the place a black man fled into traffic 20 years ago to escape a racial attack. He was killed by a car.

But if the 1986 incident spoke to the endurance and intransigence of urban racism, this latest episode speaks with equal clarity to the harm blacks - younger ones in particular - have done their own interests in the last two decades. Not to put too fine a point on it, but something is profoundly awry when it can be argued with a straight face that a white man beating a black man with a bat while calling him the N-word does not constitute racism.

It emphatically does, but the very fact that Mr. Gaudelli was not hooted out of the courtroom is evidence of how muddied the waters have been made by a generation of black people with little historical memory and, one could argue, less racial pride.

Their argument has always been that for them, the term no longer means what it once did. As if they can unilaterally wash clean a word that has been filthy for four centuries.

Sam Hose and Mary Turner would find that hubris hard to swallow, having likely died with the N-word in their ears. But then, they were of a generation that understood language to have meaning and consequence.

This generation would have us believe you can speak poison without any effect. Which is pathetic. But what's worse is, they're now being taken at their word.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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