Media Criticism

At The New York Times, Intent Does Not Matter When Someone Uses 'the N-Word,' Except When It Does

The paper let linguist John McWhorter use the racial slur he was discussing but felt a need to explain that decision.


When The New York Times parted ways with veteran reporter Donald McNeil Jr. in February, the decision was based on the premise that using the word nigger, no matter the context, was a firing offense. "We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent," Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn said in a memo to staffers. As Reason's Matt Welch noted at the time, "the Grey Lady's management, under public pressure from more than 150 employees, decided that when it comes to speaking certain radioactive words, not only does intent not matter," but "any utterance is potentially a one-strike offense."

Today the Times published an essay by Columbia University linguist (and Reason contributor) John McWhorter, titled "How the N-Word Became Unsayable," that traces the evolution in attitudes underlying the policy that ended McNeil's 45-year career at the paper. McWhorter uses the word 34 times. As Opinion Editor Kathleen Kingsbury and Opinion Politics Editor Ezekiel Kweku explain, the decision to publish the slur repeatedly and in full made perfect sense given McWhorter's subject. In other words, intent matters after all.

McNeil's offense was saying nigger during a 2019 trip to Peru, part of a program for high school students. According to his account, he "was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur." To clarify the context, McNeil said, "I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself." Just as McNeil thought context mattered in assessing the 12-year-old girl's offense, he imagined that "the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended."

McNeil eventually realized the error of his ways, but it was too late. He had inadvertently violated a taboo that was absolute and unforgiving despite its recency. Less than two decades ago, Pantheon published Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. As McWhorter notes, it is impossible to imagine a major publishing house allowing such a title nowadays.

Just a year later, a University of Virginia medical school employee provoked outrage with this comment: "I can't believe in this day and age that there's a sports team in our nation's capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks." Despite the anti-racist import of that observation, Julian Bond, who taught history at the university and was then the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demanded that the employee make a public apology and undergo sensitivity training. Bond said "his gut instinct was that the person deserved to simply be fired," McWhorter notes.

The impulse behind the nigger taboo is understandable. What began as a neutral term derived from the Latin niger ("black") and the Spanish negro became freighted with dehumanizing racism. The most striking example that McWhorter mentions is the juvenile doggerel that begins, "Eeny meeny miny moe…" The word nigger in the original was eventually replaced with tigger (or, as I learned it, tiger) as Americans became less tolerant of blatant bigotry. The rhyme, McWhorter says, is "a window into how brutally casual the usage of 'nigger' once was, happily trilled even by children at play."

Given that history, the expectation that people should avoid gratuitous use of the word is perfectly reasonable. But as Bond's response to the man who was troubled by the racist name of a football team illustrates, the demand that the word should never be uttered or written is completely irrational. And although Kennedy and McWhorter are both black, while McNeil is white, what matters is the intent of the speaker or writer, not the color of his skin.

Kingsbury and Kweku do not claim that only black people get a pass. McWhorter, whose essay is adapted from his new book Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter—Then, Now, and Forever, "traces the history of this particular word from its inception to its current place in our culture," they say. "He argues that the evolution of the use of this slur not only mirrors 'a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups' but also demonstrates a cultural shift in the concerns of the words our culture considers truly profane: from the sexual and scatological referents of the classic four-letter words to the sociological referents of slurs. While the taboo against using most four-letter words has gradually faded, the taboo against slurs has intensified. We wanted to present our readers with this argument in the clearest and most respectful way."

That explanation is utterly unobjectionable, but the perceived need for it shows how absurd this issue has become. Kingsbury (who is white) not only thought her decision required a six-paragraph defense; she felt compelled to warn readers at the top of McWhorter's essay that "this article contains obscenities and racial slurs, fully spelled out" and refer them to the official justification for allowing a linguist to use the words he was writing about.

Other recent contexts in which the Times thought printing nigger was acceptable include movie dialogue (March 2021), a Frederick Douglass quotation (February 2021), an essay about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (December 2020), a David Dinkins obituary (November 2020), a review of Barack Obama's book A Promised Land (November 2020), a news analysis comparing Donald Trump to George Wallace (July 2020), and an essay on police reform (June 2020). Yet the paper's executive editor, in explaining why McNeil had to go, claimed "we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent." If there is any sensible or even consistent standard at work here, it is pretty hard to discern.

Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed McWhorter in 2019: