Which N-Word Did Cliven Bundy Really Say in Controversial Video Clip: ‘Negro’ or ‘Nigra’?

Conservative hero turned right-wing Rosetta Stone Cliven Bundy continues to dominate news coverage after his remarks about “the negro” surfaced Wednesday, and were followed by more and more of Bundy’s ruminations about slavery. When video of Bundy’s remarks came out, the last hope of his conservative defenders evaporated, but the clip also casts some doubt as to whether he used the arcane, yet once “polite,” term negro, or an even more offensive n-word.

When I first saw the video that Media Matters was first to publish, it immediately sounded like Cliven Bundy had said “the Nigra,” but it was a little hard to tell conclusively, and the obscurity of the term seemed to argue against it, as did the fact that The New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney had quoted Bundy as saying “the Negro.” Conversely, though, the obscurity of the term could also have explained why Nagourney didn’t recognize it when he heard it. Nagourney didn’t respond to my request for clarification.

At his Thursday press conference to respond to the uproar, Bundy made frequent, and more clear, use of the term “negro,” but later in the presser, in a section that hasn’t been getting much play, he rather clearly uses the term “Nigra.” Here’s Bundy’s original remark, followed by the clip from Thursday:

The accompanying context of Bundy’s remarks is offensive enough, and an instructive link between Bundy and a popular conservative theme, but his use of the term “Nigra” is even more instructive. Some folks are inclined to forgive Bundy his use of the once-accepted term because he’s an old dude (although, at 67, he was a teenager when the Civil Rights Act was passed). It’s a form of cultural forgiveness that extends to all white males, and is extended by all in the white media. See also: Harry Reid.

Bundy’s use of “Nigra,” however, graduates him from the ranks of benignly ignorant oldster into deep-dish, old-school racism. The term is one I have only heard spoken aloud once, and never in person. In Richard Hooker’s M.A.S.H., the basis for Robert Altman’s film, the term is used frequently by Georgia-born Army surgeon Duke Forrest. Only one of those references made it into the film. According to Bill Bryson’s linguistic history Made in America, it originated as a regional pronunciation of “negro,” and was something of a bridge fuel to the word “nigger.”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the more modern usage of term “Nigra” is even worse than the n-word:

nigger (n.)

1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from French nègre, from Spanish negro (see Negro). From the earliest usage it was “the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks” [cited in Gowers, 1965, probably Harold R. Isaacs]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person.

…Used in combinations (such as nigger-brown) since 1840s for various dark brown or black hues or objects; euphemistic substitutions (such as Zulu) began to appear in these senses c.1917. Brazil nuts were called nigger toes by 1896. Variant niggah, attested from 1925 (without the -h, from 1969), is found usually in situations where blacks use the word. Nigra (1944), on the other hand, in certain uses reflects a pronunciation of negro meant to suggest nigger, and is thus deemed (according to a 1960 slang dictionary) “even more derog[atory] than ‘nigger.’ “

It’s quite possible that the media who are reporting on Cliven Bundy’s remarks are unaware of the term, and mistake it for a quirk of pronunciation or bad audio (which is also another great argument for diversity in media), but by reporting Bundy as having said “negro,” they are whitewashing the impact of what he said. Yes, what Bundy said about slavery was bad enough, while also being a reflection of mainstream conservative thought. His use of such an expertly racist epithet reveals the source, and the fruits, of such thinking.

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