But My Best Friend Is Black!

Racism is not an either/or proposition. When did the R-word become as offensive as the N-word?


During the presidential campaign, then-Sen. Joe Biden made an off-the-cuff observation that his rival, then-Sen. Barack Obama was "... clean ..." and "... articulate ..."

Then Don Imus slurred the Rutgers University’s women's basketball team.

Then the managers of the Valley Swim Club banned black campers from swimming at their pool.

And let us not forget the most recent entrant in the racial hall of shame: Boston police officer Justin Barrett and his now widely circulated e-mail, in which he called The Root’s Editor-in-Chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a “banana eating jungle monkey.”

They all have something in common: In each case, the words and actions were denounced as racist, and in each case the person(s) at the center of the controversy responded by saying they were not racist.

Officer Barrett's screed and his subsequent declarations that he was not racially motivated followed the classic “I’m-not-a-racist-I-just-sound-like one” trajectory.  

How did the word become so charged as to defy definition?  

Listen to any talk show or read the comments on any news site following the Gates incident, and you’d think that the “R-word” had become synonymous with the “N-word.”

Why do so many white Americans object so vehemently to the word?

Is racism a concept that may only be defined by minorities? When Imus and Officer Barrett were labeled racists, those who leapt to their defense often used the "I know him, and he doesn't have a racist bone in his body" excuse. But racism isn’t an either/or proposition. Racism, both in word and in deed, can be a matter of degrees.