Tom Burlington and the N-Word Game

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...full-text also available on The Root

Here we go again. From "Kramer" to Dr. Laura, the debate over the six-letter word is never-ending. Now a former local Fox TV anchor is taking the matter to court. Will we ever find consensus?

Tom Burlington, a white, Philadelphia Fox 29 news anchor, is the latest in a line of n-word ramblers, including Michael Richards (Seinfeld's Kramer) and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Here's the twist: While Richards and Schlessinger were tried in the court of public opinion, Burlington is actually going to court on Jan. 18. In fact, Burlington is suing his former employer. He claims that he shouldn't have been fired for using the n-word in a staff meeting, when three African-American employees who said or wrote it in the workplace went unpunished.

Here's what happened: In a 2007 team meeting about an upcoming report on the NAACP's ceremonial "burial" of the n-word, Burlington asked, "Does this mean we can finally say the word 'n---er'?" The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that "Burlington told a colleague ... he did not necessarily expect her to use the word in her story," but "he thought that doing so gave the story more credence."

Despite the fact that Burlington may have missed the point of the NAACP's ceremony and we've proved that erasing racist language doesn't erase racism, he did pose some interesting questions. Can we say the n-word? And who, exactly, are "we"? Some informal Facebook polling led me to three possible answers that I present in no particular order:

1. Everyone should be able to use it. Given that laws have changed to some degree, and that we have elected a self-identified African-American president, there are moments in which we misidentify racism. And in some cases, white people are being held to a different standard than everyone else. Besides, it must be OK to use the word because some black people use it.

2. No one should ever use it. Not even dead writers like Mark Twain. Perhaps we should establish a national "no-say" list on which each individual could register the words and ideas that he or she finds offensive. Of course, no word or idea would be accepted that did not cause deep offense (as defined by the individual). Another word at the top of this list is sure to be the "b" word, and it's not "Burlington." According to court transcripts and depositions, Burlington told former co-anchor Joyce Evans that someone called her a "n---er b--ch" after the infamous staff meeting.

3. Usage depends on context. Burlington should not only sue but also win. Fox's knee-jerk response is an overreaction. The word appears to have been used as part of a question, and not as part of a racist verbal attack. People are most likely assuming racist intentions that do not actually exist. These same people will be forced to re-evaluate their positions based on further information Burlington aims to provide at trial.

Judge R. Barclay Surrick seems to agree. In denying Fox's dismissal request, Surrick said that federal courts "had not determined whether a double standard, if found in this case, would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," which deals with equal opportunity in employment.

But I think there is another, fourth, answer: Neither Burlington nor his verbiage really matters at all. He's just the latest in a long line of scapegoats that allow the rest of us to feel good about ourselves, unburdening our collective guilt about race and racism onto the next worthy -- or unworthy -- contender.

This doesn't mean that Burlington is innocent. Rather, it means that focusing on Burlington and others of his ilk gets in the way of what we actually need: dialogue and reconciliation. Making Burlington our scapegoat makes us trade temporary discomfort and uncertainty for the comforts of simplicity and sanctimony. Our preference for simple worldviews -- as in, black people can say the n-word and others can't, or that all or none of us can say it -- ultimately fuels an addiction to moral superiority that gets in the way of real, and necessary, progress.

With both sides firing off statements accusing others of being either racist or more racist, some bigger questions remain unanswered. Who can be considered racist? Who can call someone else a racist? And, the most nagging question of them all: What exactly is racism, anyway? Since so few of us can answer these questions definitively, a federal jury will now have to decide. Burlington contends that he's a victim of political correctness run amok; Fox contends that he's a victim of his own poor judgment.