'The N-word' can be buried, but real social change takes time

Julian Bond ought to have a word with Don Imus: "Thanks."

Mr. Bond, the national board chairman of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said as much when he alluded to the embattled radio showman during opening ceremonies of the 98-year-old organization's annual convention last week. "While we are happy to have sent a certain radio cowboy back to his ranch, we ought to hold ourselves to the same standard," Mr. Bond said to enthusiastic applause. "If he can't refer to our women as 'hos,' then we shouldn't, either."


As much of planet Earth knows, Mr. Imus lost his nationally distributed morning radio show in the uproar over his referring to the women of the Rutgers University basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

Before his exit, an apologetic Mr. Imus said he didn't realize at the time that his words would be so offensive because he has heard black rappers use the same language.


That wasn't much of an excuse. Nevertheless, his explanation made just enough of a point to have a sting. As annoying as it was to hear Mr. Imus play the hip-hop card, it was aggravating for many of us African-Americans to know that the card was right there on the table, bold as an ace of spades, waiting to be played.

That stings because it raises a burning question for rap artists and everyone else to answer: How are you going to earn the respect of others, if you don't respect yourself?

That question has given new life to old efforts to clean up hip-hop. Mr. Imus' incendiary words have sparked a resurgence of public outrage by clergy, civil rights activists and black-oriented media against the self-hatred for which "the N-word" has become a leading symbol.

In that spirit, the NAACP held a mock funeral to "bury the N-word" at its convention. As a publicity stunt for an organization that has been struggling to attract a new generation, it worked like a charm. But how much substance, we must ask, will follow the symbolism?

After all, this is not the first time that the NAACP has held a symbolic burial in Detroit. In 1944 the organization held a funeral for "Jim Crow."

Alas, as someone observed, Jim Crow was buried alive. Twenty more years passed before Jim Crow laws and practices were outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the years in between, there was relentless struggle. Finally there was triumph.

But the burial of the N-word raises a tougher question: How do you change a culture? While you'll never stop everyone from using a particular word, how do you at least make the word unacceptable?

History tells us that social change takes time, as it did with Jim Crow. It also takes a lot of effort and sacrifice.


Unlike Jim Crow, changing a law won't work against objectionable words. Besides First Amendment concerns, it's hard to keep up with what's offensive - or to whom.

Mr. Imus knows. Back in 1974, he followed up Richard Pryor's breakthrough comedy album That Nigger's Crazy with his own comedy album, This Honky's Nuts. It didn't go far, mainly because it wasn't all that funny.

If the NAACP has its way, the N-word in hits like Kanye West's Grammy-winning "Gold Digger" will be taboo. But the word already is bleeped out on most radio and TV stations, which only arouses young appetites for the uncensored version.

That's the paradox of dealing with the culture of the young. The more you forbid something, the more they want to indulge in it. Still, respect is a highly valued prize among the young. We parents need to be as relentless as the civil rights movement was in teaching our children the difference between the language of self-respect and the words of self-defeat.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is