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Nation & World

NYC Official Wants N-Word Ban

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. In New York, a city councilman there has introduced a resolution to ban the N-word. The legislation will carry no fines and it won't impose punishments. It simply asks New Yorkers to stop using the word, which, be warned, you will hear in this report from NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA: From the steps of New York's City Hall, an assemblage of people from all races backed a new resolution calling for a ban to the N-word, a word so heinous and offensive that the resolution itself does not even spell the word out. The legislation's author, Councilman Leroy Comrie, explains.

Councilman LEROY COMRIE (Democrat, New York City's 27th District): There's no one that does not understand what we're saying. And anyone that doesn't understand what we're saying, we can quickly orient them to what we're trying to say.

PESCA: What the councilman is saying is that the N-word is not cool. It has not been reclaimed. It has not been defanged. For years, rappers and comics have used the N-word freely, but two recent incidents involving white people using the word have caused many black people to question how rampant the word has become.

One was comedian Michael Richards, who let loose a stream of N-word laden invective on the stage of the Laugh Factory Comedy Club. Indeed, that clubs owner was on hand to lend support to the resolution.

The second incident was more notorious locally. Nick Minucci in Howard Beach, Queens beat a black young man calling him a nigga and a nigger. Minucci's lawyers defense, that youngsters don't mean it as an insult, went nowhere with the jury.

But Jill Merritt, the founder of the ABOLISHTHENWORD Coalition, says the black community was forced to take a look at itself.

Ms. JILL MERRITT (Founder, ABOLISHTHENWORD Coalition): People started to jump on and say, you know what, we were responsible for that attorney using this as a defense. And when Michael Richards used it, you know, it became we were responsible for allowing this hate philosophy to be public, you know, at this time.

Our incentive is geared towards the African-American community. We're not saying to other people, you better stop using it or we can use it and you can't use it. We're not saying that.

PESCA: The resolution doesn't make explicit who its intended target is. Comrie says that even if the only offender specifically mentioned in the press conference were Richards and Minucci, his intention was to mainly get young black kids to stop using the word.

The fact that a multiracial coalition backs the resolution may also send a mixed message. On the one hand, many races were unified in denouncing bigotry. Who can argue with that? But then you add the sight of Queens Borough President Helen Marshall inveighing against rappers with their pants slung too low.

Reporters wanted to know what about the S-word with Hispanics? What about the F-word? The F-word? You can't say the F-word on radio. But later when I asked the reporter who asked the question, he said that he meant the gay slur faggot. Asians and the C-word and the G-word also came up. Councilman Comrie seemed to grasp what the epithet soup meant or at least played it off like he did.

Councilman COMRIE: I have no problem with every ethnic group working to make sure that words - and I'll be happy to help every ethnic group in their efforts to ban words and to reeducate children.

PESCA: Left unsaid what was left unsung, the role of pop culture's proponents of the N-word. Eighties rap icon Kurtis Blow was on hand, but Jay-Z, Russell Simmons, Kanye West, no where to be found.

Similar resolutions to the one in New York are being considered on the state and even a national level. That can push the discussion a bit, but without a back beat and a mix you have to wonder if government efforts to ban a word are just words.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song, "Gold Digger")

BRAND: Music from Kanye West. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.