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 Law.com, 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.