I can’t stand the N-word. Never in public and rarely in private will I utter the most vile racial epithet in the English language.

Whether growled by a redneck or cooed by a racist with a smile, the small six word has enormous power to strip an African American of his or her dignity and humanity. And when it is tossed around by other blacks like rhetorical confetti, especially by teenagers clearly oblivious of its broader implications, I cringe. But when it is used in a context to educate Americans about who we are, where we’ve been and how far we have to go, I’m all for it.

Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock famously use it to deliver searing commentaries through comedy about our nation’s contradictions. And in a podcast interview with Marc Maron, President Obama used the N-word to make point about the nature of racism in the nation he was twice elected to lead.

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Maron: You’ve gotten an amazing amount of stuff done and in a time, in the last year you got some big stuff done in time when a lot of people didn’t think you’d get done. And now this horrible thing happens on Wednesday and you have these police actions in Baltimore and Ferguson. I mean, where are we, coming from where you came from and trying to define yourself, in terms of the African American community, in terms of racial relations, where are we with that in terms of when you came in in your mind ?
Obama: Well, first of all, I always tell young people, in particular, do not say that nothing has changed when it comes to race in America, unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s or ’60s or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours. And that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.
Maron: Yeah.
Obama: What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.
Maron: Racism.
Obama: Racism. We are not cured of it.
Maron: Clearly.
Obama: And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.
So what I tried to describe in the Selma speech that I gave, commemorating the march there, was, again, a notion that progress is real, and we have to take hope from that progress. But what is also real is that the march isn’t over, and the work is not yet completed. And then our job is to try in very concrete ways to figure out, what more can we do?”

What the president was getting at is lost only on those obtuse enough to focus solely on his use of the N-word. Or those who want to use the chatter he stirred up to focus on the continued use of the N-word by African Americans themselves. That’s a related, but completely different debate.

Obama is absolutely right when he says American society has progressed enough that the once customary use of the N-word in polite company is fervently frowned upon. More often than not, espousing bigoted or racist views is an invitation to public rebuke. But by no means is racism dead or a thing of the past. It continues to stalk African Americans (and other people of color) in more pernicious and subtle ways that are just as damaging and hurtful as the overt hatred that has marked most of their existence in this country.

By employing the N-word in the manner he did, the president snapped all of us to attention to focus on his larger point. It surely offended sensibilities. But sometimes you have to do that to move a conversation forward. And when it comes to our ongoing and unending conversation on race, much more progress is needed.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

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