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N-word's use boils down to cash for trash

The NAACP's "funeral" for the N-word was a provocative bit of symbolism that helped keep pressure on entertainers -- to use the word loosely -- who might be rendered mute without that verbal crutch.

The ceremony got the attention of African-Americans, including those here who told a Buffalo News reporter that the word should be eliminated and that comedians and hip-hop artists -- some of the main offenders -- should lead the way.

No argument here, except for one thing: Those critics have the plan of attack backwards.

Deep Throat's instructions for unraveling Watergate hold true for everything in capitalist society, including the entertainment industry's use of the N-word: Follow the money.

As long as blacks shell out cash for slur-laden garbage -- and thereby give tacit permission for whites to buy even more of it -- the word will be around.

A few years ago, the NAACP boycotted the Adam's Mark chain -- including its hotel here -- to protest how it treated black college students in Daytona Beach. That was the latest in a long list of protests, including the Montgomery bus boycott, in which African-Americans used financial leverage to punish whites for racist practices.

But that weapon is rarely employed against blacks who trade on skin color while proving no friend of the race, or against the entertainment companies that employ them as minstrels.

The high-profile effort by the NAACP and others to pressure the industry into cleaning up its acts -- on stage, screen and in the studio -- is overdue and no doubt will bring some short-term results. Already, it has become fashionable for folks such as music mogul Russell Simmons to say all of the right things about cleaning up lyrics, videos and comedy routines.

And no one should miss the irony: We probably wouldn't be having this national dialogue about the N-word or demeaning depictions of black women if it weren't for two white guys. Without Michael Richards and Don Imus to give the story "legs," the discussion would still be relegated to the basements of black community centers. So I guess we should thank them for putting the issue on the national agenda.

But once the mock funeral and the news conferences are over and the news media move on to something else, all that will be left are the balance sheets calculated quietly in backrooms.

That's where the impact has to be felt.

Industry critics are right about its reach. Advertisers wouldn't spend a gazillion dollars if what's seen on TV or heard on the radio or the Web didn't affect behavior. Impressionable kids subjected to the N-word as entertainment come to think of it as acceptable. As one parent told The News, if entertainers "don't use it a lot, kids might stop using it."

But that ignores one essential fact: Artists will keep using the word as long as fans keep buying the product.

Black consumers -- not the NAACP, Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson -- ultimately hold the power to eradicate the N-word. If you buy a CD or go to a movie that slurs or otherwise denigrates African-Americans, you are the problem.

That's true even if whites buy the majority of rap music. Black consumers make it acceptable for whites to indulge on the theory that the stuff can't be racist if blacks buy it, too.

The reality is that no other racial or ethnic group so willingly spends money for its own denigration.

That has to change before anything else changes.

Otherwise, as with Mark Twain, reports of the N-word's death will be greatly exaggerated.


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