The No-No Word

The one thing that can't be said

Rep. Carolyn Maloney has her eye set on the Senate seat once held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She learned over the weekend that: 1) It's very tough to run a campaign when most of the political establishment of your party is opposed to your effort and, 2) more importantly, one word is verboten in political scrapping -- even if you're quoting someone else. 

That would be the "N-word." 

Maloney's strategy is to convince her fellow New York Democrats that appointed incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a flip-flopper and lacking principle.  Gillibrand used to represent a conservative upstate district.  As such, she adopted a number of conservative cultural positions -- on policies like gun control and immigration. 

Related to immigration is a side issue -- English-only -- of which Gillibrand once had a position that was offensive to at least one core constituency in New York:

There is Carolyn Maloney, ripping into Kirsten Gillibrand broad and hard for voting against the two stimulus bills and for changing her positions on several core Democratic issues, sounding out her case on the fly as, “It’s the NRA, it’s immigration, it’s all these other things. In fact, I got a call from someone from Puerto Rico, said [Gillibrand] went to Puerto Rico and came out for English-only [education]. And he said, ‘It was like saying n—r to a Puerto Rican,’” she said, using the full racial slur. “I don’t know—I don’t know if that’s true or not. I just called. I’m just throwing that out. All of her—well, what does she stand for?”

Now, it's quite clear that Maloney is charging Gillibrand with not standing for anything.  In short, she's untrustworthy.  Alas, in sharing that anecdote publicly, "using the full racial slur," as the story says, Maloney made a major faux pas herself. 

The social politics of the N-word are that, to the extent that it can be used in polite company, it's only used by black people discussing or talking to other black people. It's also "OK" for some other minorities to use it in a non-insulting manner. Hang around a number of Latino-heavy neighborhoods in New York like Manhattan's Washington Heights and Queens' Jackson Heights and you will hear Dominicans and Puerto Ricans using the word amongst themselves.  In fact, some young white people, influenced by hip-hop, will use it among themselves and some of their friends of color. 

Among adults in the black community the word is controversial -- some feeling that it should never be used.  The Detroit NAACP did a mock "burial" of the word a while back. 

Frankly, there shouldn't be a big deal if someone quotes someone else using a certain word.  Unfortunately, the political world doesn't work that way.  As such, a white liberal in New York shouldn't be using the word in public -- even quoting someone else.  By making that mistake, Maloney took focus away from Gillibrand's flip-flops and to her own expression of verboten language.  Rev. Al Sharpton -- who's endorsed Gillibrand -- swooped in and called foul on Maloney.   Sharpton not only castigated Maloney for using the word, but said that she should have not let the word go "unchallenged" by the person who called her.  In other words, she was "guilty" of two political-linguistic "crimes" -- uttering the word and not speaking out against it. 

It's all absurd, of course -- especially coming from Sharpton who has used in-artful language about other ethnic groups in the past. However, Maloney is a professional. In tennis terms, she committed an unforced error. Given that so much of the New York and national Democratic Party is lined up for Gillibrand, Maloney can't afford to make many (read any) more. 

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots.  Follow him on Twitter.   

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