Over the weekend, the renewed debate over whether the Confederate flag should fly on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol continued to rage, but on Monday morning, another debate almost completely eclipsed it in the news cycle. President Obama taped an interview in Marc Maron's garage on Friday, and when that podcast was released Monday morning, the hot topic became this rather ordinary (in most respects) exchange:
"Racism, we are not cured of it. 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 to 300 years prior."
That clip is just one of the many times President Obama's exchange with Marc Maron was played on the news all day Monday, but it is remarkable for the surreal fact that it was the only one in which the network plying the snippet elected not to censor the President's remark. The minute Maron's podcast became available, the comment exploded on social media, and quickly fell into the cable news rotation, but not as a way to examine President Obama's broader point. Rather, the question of the day became whether it was "appropriate" for President Obama to use the word "nigger."
It's an absurd question about a point that the media pretends is confusing, but which really is not. For as far back as I can remember, black social commentators have used the word itself in order to comment on it, most memorably by comedian and activist Dick Gregory. In 1964, he dedicated his autobiography Niggerwith a note that said "Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word 'nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book."
You would think that the intervening fifty years would give people some sense, but all day, cable news has been bleeping President Obama, and asking a parade of guests if the Head POTUS in Charge has the same n-word legitimacy as Don Lemon. Knowing the White House press corps like I do, I made the following prediction this morning:
At Monday's White House daily briefing, my colleagues wasted no time in proving me right, starting with the very first question of the day to Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who was asked if the President "regretted" using the word:
As I predicted, variations on that question were asked 11 more times in the briefing, and while their interest was somewhat understandable, especially given the amount of heat it was already getting on everyone's respective outlets, here's what isn't so understandable: that equally roiling and much more newsworthy debate about the Confederate flag merited just one question. Combined with Friday's non-televised Air Force One gaggle, and this White House was asked about the Confederate flag a total of two times.
It would have made this all bearable if anyone bothered to drill down on the point that President Obama was making, especially in relation to that very same Confederate flag debate, which should be no debate at all. Restraining yourself from saying the n-word in public is not a very high bar, yet in continuing to display the Confederate flag on government property (in addition to all the other Confederate-ish flags that other states continue to fly), we are failing, as a nation, to meet even that very low standard.