Prostration And The “N-Word”

There is no other word, none, that holds the power of the “n-word.” Lenny Bruce sought to take away its power, but failed. Instead, it’s become omnipotent. Elie Mystal explains that he can use it (though he doesn’t), but I can’t, and if I try to discuss the word with him, he’s going to vomit.

I can say it, you can’t, fuck you if that bothers you.

What he lacks in reasoning, he makes up for in passion. But as much as few of us would take issue with his view, because we don’t substantively disagree with him, it leaves a hole unfilled when it comes to certain academic issues. The New School’s Laurie Sheck found herself in that hole while teaching James Baldwin, but after a needlessly lengthy delay, relented.

But Emory Law prawf Paul Zwier can’t seem to stay out of that hole. It’s not because he’s racist, as passionately anti-racist as one can be. It’s that he can’t seem to stop saying that word.

Case in point, earlier this week we wrote about an Emory Law professor who “mentioned” the n-word in freaking class. He claims he was just repeating language used in a case they were studying (SPOILER: the word was not used in the case at issue).

As highly respected legal brain Kathryn Rubino described it:

Oh god, today is just the day for wildly inappropriate racist BS, isn’t it?

Despite hearing from those not in the employ of Above The Law recognizing that Zwier wasn’t racist, how can they even claim something so obviously false when Rubino tells them its “wildly inappropriate racist BS.” He said the word, didn’t he? Not only did he say it, but “he literally said the N-word to a black woman.” I can’t even.

As a consequence of this deeply considered hysteria, Zwier was punished by Dean Hughes, while FIRE fought for his academic freedom.

Last September, we covered the suspension of Paul Zwier, a white professor at Emory University School of Law, after he used the word “nigger” while discussing the facts of a civil rights case. After Zwier subsequently told a student, who had come to his office to discuss the controversy, that Zwier had been called a “nigger-lover” by white racists angered by his civil rights work, the university initiated disciplinary proceedings. That sparked a letter from FIRE and two letters from the American Association of University Professors, raising concerns about the implications of Emory’s conduct on due process and academic freedom.

One might suspect that everyone learned a lesson here, except of course Elie and Rubino, for whom no lessons are needed because they do the talking and you do the listening. But that apparently wasn’t the case for anyone involved.

In October, a student of color approached Zwier during his office hours to discuss the controversy. Zwier sought to share an anecdote in which a white racist angrily accused Zwier of being a “nigger-lover” because of Zwier’s views on race. After the student reported this conversation to Emory’s administration, Zwier was suspended indefinitely and banned from campus.

It wasn’t the context. It wasn’t that Zwier was himself racist. It was that Zwier, in the course of pedagogy, uttered the word that cannot be uttered as part of his explanation. It’s the word.

Despite these warnings, Emory has proceeded with steps towards terminating Zwier, specifically citing his in-class discussion. According to a report by, in June, after Zwier sought a hearing on his indefinite suspension, then-interim dean of Emory’s School of Law James Hughes, Jr. sent a letter to Emory’s Faculty Hearing Committee asking that Zwier be stripped of tenure and terminated for “moral delinquency” and “incompetence[.]”

Perhaps Zwier thought he was engaging in a good faith discussion with a mature student who understood he had no Klan hood hiding in his closet, although as an academic, he should have realized that those conversations don’t happen anymore, and that his law school’s tolerance for context was less than robust, branding him “morally delinquent” because the word.

Following this, the AAUP sent a second letter, this one arguing that “Dean Hughes’s […] stated grounds for dismissal is impermissible under AAUP-supported principles of academic freedom.”

Apparently, neither the AAUP nor precepts of academic freedom are taken seriously enough to overcome the n-word. The problem isn’t that this happened to Zwier once, but twice, and Emory Law is not about to be branded by potential students as the law school who tolerates a totally anti-racist civil rights law professor who actually says the word euphemistically characterized as the “n-word,” which doesn’t at all put the actual word into anyone’s head.

Had Zwier promoted flat earth, chem trails, the genocide of WASPs or that age is just a social construct, no one would blink. But there are no circumstances under which the teaching, or discussion, of civil rights law permits the mention of the word that can never be mentioned. By a white guy.

There are myriad cases, the AAUP’s letter explains, in which “administrations [disciplined faculty] for bad publicity, reputational harm, adverse effects on student recruitment and retention, alumni dissatisfaction, and the like,” but these are impermissible “considerations not related to professional fitness[.]”

And yet, there is more to this hole in the lingua franca of law than dawns on big legal brains.

As a criminal defense lawyer, the word pops up with regularity. Clients use it all the time. Not white supremacist clients, but black and Hispanic clients. They use it in conversation with me. They use it with each other. I do not use it in return.

In one extremely awkward case, a wiretap was replete with the word, so much so that it was impossible for the word to be redacted while maintaining the integrity of the eavesdropped conversations. The judge, prosecutor and I tried to do so, pored over the transcript word by word, each of us openly weirded out by what we were doing and how we were to discuss our efforts.

If the word can’t be mentioned, taught, and understood for the impact it has, it presents a problem for those who will practice criminal law, discrimination law, and perhaps a number of other practice areas where the word arises, whether innocently or malevolently. Of course, we can substitute the “n-word” for the n-word, and then it will all be acceptable and no one will be offended by the word given more power than any other to do harm.

Like Elie, I don’t use the word. My choice, even though it wouldn’t cost me my job if I did, even if for reasonable pedagogical purposes with the purest of intentions.

21 thoughts on “Prostration And The “N-Word”

  1. wilbur

    Richard Prior and Dick Gregory tried to take away the power, too. I don’t think they expected to succeed.

    When we ascribe SO much power to a word, it creates weird results, like a huge object in space bends light and gravity.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Airstrikes are being called in on that position by both sides as we write.

        Unironically using that word proves to the masses you’re a misguided idiot, while ironically using it proves to the masses you’re a misguided idiot.

        Nothing will change until some of “the right” people die, which will only give cover for “the wrong” people to freely use the word. A result I’m personally in favor of; I miss the days when you knew who you were dealing with after three sentences. But more pressing causes abound.

  2. Joe O.

    It’s hard to imagine a nastier word. I grew up before Huck was redacted, but there was little mystery about the nastiness of the word, even in BFE.

    Still, I see little benefit to redaction when conveying dialogue. I see no benefit to sanitizing my language when retelling defining stories of my youth. Luke called Anthony a nigger. He didn’t say, “Get out of my way enn word.” The fat redneck with his stupid rebel flag belt buckle called my friend and teammate, the only black kid in our high school, a nigger as he walked by him between the bells. I felt the word, and it was not even directed at me.

    I feel the same about using it in court. We should not be fearful of using it when our goal is to put the listener in that moment. The reason we’re told not to use it under any circumstance is the reason we should use it under select circumstances.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve had clients laugh at me because I don’t, won’t, use the word, while they’re making fun of my squeamishness. They tell me it’s just a word, one that they use constantly (as my redaction problems with wiretaps reflected).

  3. Elpey P.

    We need a new euphemism with a purposefully vague meaning. Besides being a cowardly form of passive-aggressive protest, its use will also let us avoid resposibility for conjuring the damaging word in someone else’s mind and serve as a defense against claims that it was conjured in our own. I suggest “the r-word.”

    Or even better, just “the word.”

    If they don’t know what we’re talking about, that’s their own damn problem. If they want to pursue it, they can discuss it with someone else and leave us safely out of it.

    Alternate idea: “Noxos.”

  4. Kirk A Taylor

    My cousin has been nominated for an emmy and has otherwise been lauded for how accurately he has portrayed Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, yet in the world of PC, the content of his acts in the show leave out a crap ton of the more controversial stuff, especially the “racist” parts

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s your cousin? He’s terrific, but I’ve noticed how sanitized (aside from the weed) they’ve portrayed Bruce.

  5. Richard Kopf


    First, the word is perfectly acceptable in legal proceedings when the word is used as a fact. Indeed, in the seminal First Amendment case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Court’s opinion recites these words, “Personally, I believe the nigger should be returned to Africa, the Jew returned to Israel.” Therefore, I am a little taken aback that you went through the trouble of redacting “nigger” from the Title III intercepts, although if everyone agreed I suppose that’s fine.

    Second, using the formulation “N-word” seems childish* when the word “nigger” is the subject of a rational discussion about the word itself. If that makes some people vomit, I have collection of air sickness bags from my travels that I will happily lend them.

    Finally, and to be clear, I don’t use the word “nigger” (or Jew) in casual conversation. Although it is true that I have been known to utter the slur “Kraut” when speaking or writing to or about those of German heritage. But don’t ever let me hear about you using it.

    All the best.


    * If you have a strong aversion to the word, as you do, I don’t mind using “N-word.” I just don’t think it should be a convention.

    1. SHG Post author

      I have an aversion to it, but my aversion is mine, so it’s of no consequence to anyone else.
      That said, if it appeared incongruously in a comment, it would never see daylight. This post, for obvious reasons, is different.

  6. Hunting Guy

    Looks like Robert H. deCoy’s major work is going to disappear from Amazon and be redacted from Wikipedia.

    That’s a shame because it was a landmark in its time.

      1. JohnM

        Not in a million years.

        You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons

  7. LawProf

    I’m under investigation for violation of my University’s anti-discrimination policy because, quoting a 1968 case, I used the word “Negro” in class. (Clearly articulated, not misheard, but nevertheless offensive to the student who complained to an administrator, who reported it up the chain.) Things are much worse than we thought.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s bizarre. At least the “n-word” was always a slur, but “negro” was the preferred, politically correct usage for a period. This doesn’t come close to an offensive utterance, and is outrageously chilling in your ability to teach. I hope you’ve involved the AAUP and FIRE in this matter. If you need a hand, please let me know.

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