The use of the word “nigger” by African-Americans and the racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims to prevent further terrorist attacks caused heated debate last Thursday in Temple’s Kiva Auditorium.
In the second half of the two-hour Temple Issues Forum, the panel attempted to ascertain whether the use of the word by African-American comedians and hip-hop artists was a betrayal of the Civil Rights movement and whether its use is ever legitimate.
Temple University African-American Studies professor Nate Norment, Temple linguistics professor Nikki Keach, and Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy were the featured panelists.
Kennedy is a former Rhodes Scholar who recently published the book Nigger, The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.
“The word ‘nigger’ has a very complicated history, and while it has primarily been used as a derogatory term, it, like many words, has many meanings. It’s also used as a term of endearment and in a wide array of settings … can mean many things,” Kennedy said.
Norment reacted angrily several times to what Kennedy had to say. In a letter given out prior to the beginning of the forum, Norment wrote, “[‘nigger’] is a potent, poisonous word, which has wrought nothing but havoc on an entire group and community of people. No attempt to ameliorate the word ‘nigger’ will change the socio-political or economic conditions of black people.”
For many of the students in attendance, this second panel helped them understand the issues surrounding the word.
“The debate shed light on the evolution of a word that historically carried only negative connotations, but now has come to mean different things to different people,” said Martin Schwarting, a freshman Business major.
The first panel dealt with the use of ethnic and religious profiling of Arabs and Muslims to prevent future terrorist attacks.
Joining the discussion were Temple University law professor and former INS official Jan Ting and University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky.
Ting argued in favor of the use of profiling as an effective method of preventing terrorism.
“I think the government has acted in a moderate and restrained way,” Ting said of the detention of Arab and Muslim men by the federal government. “History tells us that our civil liberties are very elastic, and while they have stretched sometimes during wartime, when we win the war, when peace is restored, those changes have no lasting impact on American society.”
Rudovsky felt that the use of such profiling violates the civil rights of those who are targeted.
“Throughout our history, we have not done very well in terms of protecting civil liberties in times of war,” said Rudovsky. “We interned [during World War II] 120,000 Japanese people solely on the basis of their ancestry.”
Both panels were moderated by Marty Moss-Coane, the host of Radio Times on WHYY 91 FM, which broadcast the discussion.
Moss-Coane asked questions of the panelists to guide the discussion. The panelists also took questions from audience members and from people who telephoned the show.
Following the two panels, the floor was opened for an audience discussion. TIF coordinator Melanie Tambolas, a senior Economics major, led the audience discussion, which was dominated by the second topic. Professors Norment and Keach remained during the discussion, and Norment broke in several times to emphasize points he had made during his panel’s discussion.
“The audience became pretty vocal, which showed us that the hour was a success,” Tambolas said of the discussion.
Temple Issues Forum is a faculty-sponsored program designed to bring public affairs issues to Temple students.