Friday, May 19, 2006


Yo, You My N***as

I'm surprised that this hasn't been a greater point of contention in court cases before in this era of "hate crimes."

Both the prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case of last summer's Howard Beach beating are assessing jurors feelings toward the use of the word "nigger" (or its popular variants such as "nigga" or "niggaz") and whether the word is, in and of itself, evidence of racial bigotry.

The lawyers are testing the views of jurors to this concept, saying that the cultural meaning of the N-word has
changed over time:

Potential jurors for the trial of a 19-year-old charged in a bias attack in Howard Beach last summer have been asked some unusual questions during jury selection: Do they listen to rap music? Are they familiar with hip-hop culture? Yesterday, the prosecution and defense asked them how they feel about a certain longstanding epithet denigrating black people.

The epithet — or "the N-word," as the lawyer representing the defendant, Nicholas Minucci, repeatedly described it in court — may well be the crux of this racially charged and high-profile case.....

If Mr. Minucci is convicted in the attack, but the jury decides it was not motivated by racial hatred, then he will face a lower sentence.

Prosecutors hope to prove the attack was motivated by such a bias. The defense, meanwhile, is expected to suggest that a young man growing up in a mixed neighborhood in New York City uses "the N word" as a matter of course and that the word no longer carries the racially charged overtones it has historically.

Mr. Minucci's friends and family have said that the word is uttered today more in collegiality than hatred, and that its proliferation in rap music and everyday conversation among young people of various races and ethnicities has changed its meaning and impact.

At one point yesterday, Mr. Minucci's lawyer, Albert Gaudelli, surveyed 11 potential jurors, four of whom were black. He turned to a black man from Queens Village and asked him what he thought about "the N word," explaining that "the N word is going to be an issue in this case, and its use."

The man responded, "It depends on who's saying it and how it's being used."

Mr. Gaudelli said, "At one time, it had only one meaning, as a pejorative term, but today it means many things, or can mean many things." He motioned toward the prosecutors and said of the case, "They have to prove that it is bias."

He told the jury pool, "The word in and of itself dose not establish bias. Does everyone agree with that?" This elicited a murmur of faint agreement.

However, for all the assertions that the word has become harmless, neither Mr. Gaudelli nor anyone else in the courtroom actually uttered it.

So, here we are 15 years after N.W.A. had a number one album called, uh, efil4zaggiN (that would be Niggaz4life backwards), and, finally the legal community is waking up to the fact that what was once a so-called "fighting word" -- something that could be easily identified as intrinsically offensive has become far more subjective.

No kidding.

Besides rap, check out an average episode of The Boondocks.

No one has ever doubted the power of black culture to influence broader social conventions. One can hear young whites, Asians, Latinos and many other various ethnicities within those groups often refer to someone as "my ni**a." Once that genie is out of the bottle, it becomes impossible to put it back in.

And maybe that's fine. Maybe it shouldn't be put back in. Maybe, it is a good thing that society has begun to move on. (Though obviously not fast enough -- given the absurd amount of space devoted in the Blogworld over Tony Snow's use of a certain phrase during his first televised press briefing.)

However, lawmakers should start to realize that it is much harder to assess exactly what is a "hate crime." One can't just use language to assume that language automatically determines what is someone's state of mind in a given incident. Indeed, another racial incident is an almost mirror image of the Howard Beach situation, with
a white NYU student being chased by black and Latino youths into traffic in Harlem. Here, the cops declined to charge the gang with a hate crime -- even though one was heard to say, "Get the white boy!"

Perhaps even in New York people are beginning to understand that actions should always speak louder than words.

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