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Expert Testimony and the 'N-word'

The trial earlier this month of a white man charged with a hate crime for beating a black man with a baseball bat in New York's Howard Beach took an unusual turn when black Harvard University law professor Randall L. Kennedy appeared as an expert witness for the defense. As the New York Times reported, Kennedy, author of the book, "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," testified that the n-word -- which the defendant called his victim as he beat him -- is not necessarily a racist term, but "a complex word" that "has many meanings."

In an essay published this week, George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and, considers Kennedy's testimony and that of a second defense witness, hip-hop music producer Gary Jenkins, who said the word has been stripped of its noxious odor. Curry reports that defense attorney Albert Gaudelli, buoyed by these two witnesses, said in his closing argument:

"You don’t like that word. I don’t like that word, no one over 30 likes it, but it’s a fact that people under 30 use the word differently. Ignore this word, it’s merely another descriptive word."

The jury chose otherwise, finding the defendant, Nicholas Minucci, guilty. But Curry argues in this essay that even though Gaudelli "failed in his attempt to sanitize" the word, the trial was a reminder that "the n-word should not be used in any forum." He cites a reference to the word "as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English," and concludes:

"That’s exactly what it is. And use of the n-word should never be defended by Harvard professors, hip-hop artists or anyone else."

As UCLA law professor Devon Carbado questioned earlier this month at the blog, even if one were to accept the argument that the word's meaning depends on its context, how would that have helped the defense in this case? He wrote:

"Whatever the strange career of this troublesome word might be, its deployment in the context white on black violence is, for many, precisely the 'career' of the word that most people worry about."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 22, 2006 at 04:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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