On Monday night, the writer/producer David Simon wrote a needling Tweet — using the n-word — about a “Black issues” town hall on Fox News featuring Donald Trump and hosted by Sean Hannity.
In the ensuing firestorm, few people questioned his racial bonafides. He’s been telling stories about poor black people in America for more than half his life. His most popular work, “The Wire” TV series, has a mostly black cast and is about urban struggles in mostly black Baltimore.
Simon’s works have made him a sort of elder statesmen regarding the intersection of race, politics and socioeconomics in America, pontificating on insidiously racist language around housing reform and the death of Freddie Gray, a black Baltimore man who died in police custody.
But does that mean that Simon, a 56-year-old white man, gets to use the n-word?
“Hannity my n—a!” Simon tweeted. “If they couldn’t get a Ta-Nehisi or Deray to host, then who but you on the pulse of black America.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of “Between the World and Me,” which explores 21st century race relations in America and fatal shootings of blacks by police officers. DeRay Mckesson is an activist and one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Both are black. Hannity and Trump are not.
That, as Simon tried to explain in later tweets, was the point he was trying to make. How insightful can a segment on black issues be without actual black people?
Simon told The Washington Post that he thinks most of his followers understood the point he was trying to make, even if the conversation was dominated by one word.
“Obviously it veered off track for some people, but just as obviously I think it’s clear that the intent and purpose wasn’t to offend anyone other than a media group that feels entitled to appoint a white conduit for a birther candidate to discuss issues of import to the black community,” he said.
“Would I do it again? No, as the intended purpose was lost amid debate over the word itself. And if that many people are genuinely upset, then their unhappiness is certainly not worth it for a 140-character critique of Sean Hannity and Donald Trump’s racial presumptions,” Simon said. “But no, I don’t think the tweet evidences racism at all, or that the sarcastic tone of an unreliable narrator who claims Sean Hannity as the third-best choice to address black issues with Donald Trump can be lost on most people.”
He spent most of Monday and Tuesday making those points to Twitter followers-turned-critics, who were having a hard time getting past the third word in his tweet.
To the hall monitors: Use of N-word (with an A) DIRECTLY mocks the misuse of a white Fox interlocutor to address black issues. I'll play it.
— David Simon (@AoDespair) September 20, 2016
Twitter user @bettyb00p00 told him: “This wasn’t okay. You know better, you should do better.”
About an hour later, Simon replied: “I don’t honestly agree. Use of the wrong racial vernacular was precise intended metaphor for use of wrong racial interlocutor.”
But @bettyb00p00 shot back: “David, you’re an intelligent white man. You know how this looks. It’s not okay. I get the sarcasm. There’s better ways to do it.”
Simon said he understood: “I see how it looks to some, and I regret any hurt. But I know what it actually is in purpose/intent. So we are where we are.”
Meanwhile, Simon was also getting pushback from Hannity. The two were still sparring after early Tuesday morning.
After midnight, Hannity wrote: “Maybe it’s your ignorance about conservatives, or maybe you are just a malicious a–hole. Either way (I don’t care). Night.”
Checkmate David. Facts confuse and confound ignorant liberals like you. Are Americans better off after 8 yrs of BHO? https://t.co/26mxzcXUPl
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) September 20, 2016
Mckesson, the Black Lives Matter activist, weighed in about 1 a.m. “David,” he said, “let’s talk.”
Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post columnist who has written two screenplays with Simon, defended his friend and colleague: “If it matters what an old white guy thinks, here it is: David Simon is the blackest white man I have ever known. What he wrote was clearly ironic, and entirely at the expense of the whitest white man on the planet. I see no foul.”
Writers and other artists have used the n-word in books and film for decades, said Jody Armour, author of “Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America.” Armour includes himself in that number. His Twitter handle contains the n-word, and so does one of his scholarly papers.
But he said white people — even those who speak up about black causes, like Simon — don’t have the social capital to throw around the n-word in everyday speech.
“At the end of the day, he’s still a 56-year-old white guy who enjoys all of the privilege that social designation comes with,” Armour told The Post. “He cannot deny that, and he cannot run away from that. And, as someone who occupies that privileged position, he has … a responsibility to be sensitive to socially marginalized groups.”
His advice to Simon: Admit fault and move on.
“By far his best option is not to patronize black folks with explanations about the nature of sarcasm and irony,” Armour said. “Thank you, we understand what irony and sarcasm are. Stop ‘whitesplaining’ to black people what irony is and what the n-word means. The best thing he can do now is just say ‘mea culpa. I’m human. We all make mistakes.'”