David Zurawik

Carl Stokes explains his use of the 'N word' on CNN

After lighting up the Internet with his use of the "N word" in a heated exchange with CNN's Erin Burnett Tuesday, Baltimore City Council member Carl Stokes was back on the cable channel this afternoon explaining his choice of words.

In focusing on one word that Stokes used, much of media has missed the truly significant discussion he ignited in reacting the way he did to Burnett.


CNN host Ashleigh Banfield told Stokes today how distressed she was to hear him using that word on live TV last night with Burnett and asked him if he had a chance to "re-think" it.

Stokes did not retract his use of the word, but did share some further thoughts in an attempt to clarify why he reacted the way he did to some of the teenage lawbreakers in Baltimore being called "thugs."


In the Burnett interview, he said if you are going to call high school age children that, why not just call them [the "N word"]. You can see that on the video above.

In trying to explain that, he stressed to Banfield that he feels we should be "condemning the acts" of lawlessness that took place in Baltimore Monday, but we should be careful how we describe the teens who committed the acts.

"Let us condemn the acts, but let us not be so slashing in terms of the language that high school age children are essentially labeled as 'irredeemable' by it," he said.

The interview ended with Stokes inviting Banfield, who was hosting from New York, to Baltimore and see what's going in the neighborhoods where the lawbreaking took place.

Even though CNN has myriad journalists in Baltimore already, Banfield said she was going to do that right after the show today, and hoped to have Stokes back on tomorrow to discuss what she saw and heard.

I'll withhold judgment on Banfield's part of the exchange until I see if she comes and how she characterizes it on screen.

But here's my takeaway: Stokes launched a truly important conversation as to how ideologically powerful words are in the discussion of race. This is exactly the kind of conversation cable news TV is accused of never having because of an alleged obsession with violence, sensationalism and conflict.

The problem is the way the conversation was reduced to one word on the Internet and social media. That's where the problem is in terms of the level of our national conversation.


I would love to hear an extended conversation on this topic among Stokes, Burnett, Banfield and Kweisi Mfume, who is also seen in the interview above trying to re-focus the Stokes-Burnett exchange. I would love to see that discussion reach into ways social class and race affect the use of the word.