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Nation & World

When is the 'N-Word' Not a Racial Slur?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A jury in New York today is deliberating a case of a man who beat one of three would-be robbers in his neighborhood. The defendant was 19 years old at the time. He is white, the victim is black, and the neighborhood where this occurred is Howard Beach, infamous for a hate crime 20 years ago where a black man was killed by a white mob. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the case highlights the current debate over one of the most offensive words in the English language. And as a warning, that word is said in this report.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

On a summer night last year, Nicholas Minucci was doing what he does: aimlessly cruising his Queens neighborhood in a paid-off $60,000 Cadillac Escalade. He described his activities to two detectives and an Assistant DA in a videotaped interview.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Mr. NICOLAS MINUCCI (Defendant): If you asked the local cops in the neighborhood, they seen me at Dunkin' Donuts till 4:00, 5:00 in the morning. I just drive around. I ain't got a job. So I don't pay for my car. I just cruise all night. Beautiful weather. Why go inside?

PESCA: Minucci was known around the neighborhood as Fat Nick. Since the time of that videotaped statement, given in the early morning after he beat a young black man with a baseball bat, Minucci has a lot of weight. Jail does that.

What landed him there was a run-in with the victim, Glenn Moore and Moore's two friends, or to be precise, two accomplices, because the young black men admit they were in overwhelmingly white Howard Beach with the intention of stealing a car.

The first time Minucci saw the three, he says he was immediately suspicious, and his thoughts were confirmed when, in an incident that was not supported by a store's security camera, the men tried to rob him of his accessories.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Mr. MINUCCI: And one had a screwdriver, a flathead screwdriver, and put it to my neck. And says, Where's your watch and your chain? Which I'm wearing right now.

Unidentified Man (Police Officer): Okay, what kind of watch is that?

Mr. MINUCCI: A Rolex.

Unidentified Man (Police Officer): And how much is that worth?

Mr. MINUCCI: Almost $6,000.

Unidentified Man (Police Officer): And what about the chain?

Mr. MINUCCI: $4,000.

Unidentified Man (Police Officer): Okay.

PESCA: Minucci gathered up friends, chased the men with a softball bat, and hit Glenn Moore. Prosecutors say it was in the head. Minucci claims it was in the lower body. Mildly, in the words of the defense.

Before that transpired, Minucci asked his victim a question.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Unidentified Man (Police Officer): And what did you do?

Mr. MINUCCI: I jumped out of the car. I was like, What up, nigger? Like that.

PESCA: According to a friend of Minucci who testified for the prosecution in exchange for immunity, racial slurs were uttered throughout the night. As a result, hate crime charges were brought, which means that Minucci faces 25 years in prison if found guilty.

Minucci's lawyer, Albert Gardelli, advanced the argument that his client was trying to effectuate an arrest, which if believed would lead to not guilty verdicts on some of the more serious charges.

But Gardelli spent a large portion of his time presenting evidence about how the N-word, or, as he often said in court, nigger, has changing connotations.

Mr. ALBERT GARDELLI (Nicholas Minucci's Lawyer): I think at this point in time I've established clearly that the word is a word and sometimes it's used in the good sense and sometimes it's used in a bad sense. That's it.

And young people today use it with impunity. They describe themselves and everyone else as niggers. That's it.

PESCA: Gardelli's witnesses included a music producer who said that, What up, nigga? is a common greeting in hip-hop parlance meaning, quote, "How goes your day?"

In a slightly surreal moment, the defense called Randall Kennedy, a Harvard professor and author of a book titled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Kennedy says using the epithet is no longer ipso facto evidence of racism.

I asked Gardelli if it was weird after a 40 year law career to be uttering the word so frequently before a jury which has a mix of black, white and brown faces reflecting the diversity of Queens.

Mr. GARDELLI: Not really. It's a word. It's a word. I don't use it. I wouldn't use it. Well, sometimes I do use it. You know. But that's the point. It's just another word and in this instance, in this context, it just happens to be another word.

PESCA: That will undoubtedly be the toughest thing for the jury to decide. Their interpretation of socio-linguistics will play a factor in determining the fate of the defendant.

Mike Pesca, NPR News. New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.