Boxing promoter and businessman Don King, a longtime Republican, Trump pal and casino-business associate, was supposed to stand up at a black Cleveland church and tell black Americans why they should vote for Trump.
His reasoning, while a bit hard to follow, will not be the story that anyone writes now. But there will be a lot said about the language that King used, where he used it, who gets to use it and who gets to laugh when the language in question is used.
This, America, is the way that all too often race gets any public attention at all. Know right now, that little in the way of substantive debate about racial inequality or whatever point King was trying to make will take place. Why? Because King’s rambling effort to stump for Trump included the n-word.
To be as clear as possible in this cloudy situation, here is exactly what King said while standing before a church.
America needs Donald Trump. We need Donald Trump, especially black people. Because you have got to understand, my black brothers and sisters, they told me, you’ve got to try to emulate and imitate the white man and then you will be successful. We tried that … I told Michael Jackson, I said, if you are poor, you are a poor Negro. I would use the n-word. But, if you are rich you’re a rich Negro. If you are intelligent, intellectual, you’re intellectual Negro. If you are a dancing and sliding and gliding n——, I mean Negro, you’re a dancing and sliding and gliding Negro.
So dare not alienate because you cannot assimilate. You know, you’re going to be a Negro till you die.
Trump, sat, arms folded, a few feet behind King. Trump was listening, at times nodding and smiling and when the word n—— was used, Trump and many others around him — black and white — smiled. Some laughed. Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump supporter who was seated behind both King and Trump slapped his knee in what could have been a nervous reaction, but sure looks like glee.
From what The Fix can gather, King was speaking about the immutable nature of blackness in America, the way that it shapes all manner of experiences and the way that black Americans are almost always understood as others or interlopers. Black Americans are black first and last, they do and say all that they do as black. Michael Jackson, by many accounts, attempted to physically alter his phenotypically black features, to emulate whiteness. And this, King seemed to be saying, is a method or attempt at inclusion that does not work. It did not end well for Jackson. So some sense of racial concern and racial fidelity and race-related political goals remain necessary for black Americans.
Or, at least, that’s what King may have been saying, as best we can tell.
That King said these things in a church in an effort to sell Trump — the nation’s best-known birther and official otherizer of the nation’s first black president — is, well, intriguing. How King reconciles Trump’s years of birther activity in a way that allows him to back his old friend and business associate in Trump’s race for the White House is, at the very least, intriguing. But it’s exceedingly unlikely that any questions King or the Trump campaign get about this comment will aim to suss out King’s meaning or his precise rationale for why black Americans should join him and vote for Trump.
What will happen, what has already begun to happen, is this. There will be outrage and umbrage expressed about King’s language and his use of the n-word in a church, of all places. There will be those who line up to condemn King’s language and those who view King’s choice of words as an opportunity to once again chide black Americans about the n-word’s use in music or inside in-group conversation. This will be another opportunity for some conservative commentator to bemoan the torment that white Americans face when they use the same language. Those willing to exchange the long list of white privileges should promptly raise their hands.
And in fairness, King’s comments were hard to follow. They also included the n-word in a most unusual setting, and drew a most unusual reaction, as a former adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign quickly noted:
Let me be clear: it is completely inappropriate when Don King uses the n-word in a church and everyone – including Trump – laughs.
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) September 21, 2016
Who can argue with that? Well, some will.
But most reporters are likely to cover the outrage of people like Symone Sanders (no relation to Sen. Sanders) and stay there. This is, after all, the same kind of around the edges reporting on race in politics and public life that has become standard. And this is the type of political coverage that left both reporters and voters so ill-equipped to describe and understand Trump’s repeated efforts to stoke group-suspicion since his run for the White House began last year.
Outrage, possible political damage estimates and umbrage, oh the umbrage, are about as close as many reporters come to covering the real role of race in American life.
That’s race coverage around the edges, racial epithet scandal to possible ethnic or religious-group uproar. And, it’s this coverage that overtakes or actually stands in where a more thoughtful, substantive examination of the undeniable role that race continues to play in housing, lending, employment, health care, education and every other major feature of American life should probably be.
So prepare yourself for coverage of Don King’s n-word slip or in-pulpit use of the n-word. There will likely be an onslaught. And it will very likely embody the very thing President Obama warned about when he used the n-word in an interview with the comedian Marc Maron (for Maron’s popular WTF podcast) last year.
Here’s what Obama said:
“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it,” Obama said in the interview. “Racism. We are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n—–’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. … Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to 300 years prior.”
And almost every story that followed entirely missed Obama’s point. Obama said that who does and does not use the n-word is not a meaningful measure of racial equality and lingering animus. Rather, America should pour its attention into the degree and frequency with which racial disparities register with us all as normal, as a natural and healthy state of affairs or an immutable rather than man-made (read that as crafted by public policy and social practice) problem, Obama said. There is a need for honesty about the structures and practices that created and sustain racial inequality, Obama tried to say. That’s not at all what people talked about after Obama’s Maron interview.
Here is the thing.
King’s comments Wednesday will simply put him in the center of today’s moment of daily racist outrage. Then we’ll likely move on, even though two black men have been shot and killed by police officers in two different cities inside of a week. To borrow a favorite Trump phrase, that’s sad. It is really, in 2016, quite sad.