President Obama and Eric Holder

After President Obama weighed in on the George Zimmerman verdict on Friday, telling the nation he “could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago” and asked Americans to begin honest dialogues about race and racial profiling, many wondered how the President’s voice would shape the dialogue.

While many on the left commended the president for lending his voice to such a politically charged issue, several on the right called him a race baiter and claimed he over-stepped his bounds. Others still, like Tavis Smiley, felt the President’s extremely personal remarks did not go far enough.

Rich Benjamin of Salon took it a step further, arguing Mr. Obama’s comments were “safe” and “overrated.”

Benjamin wrote:

When people hold their breath for your imminent words, isn’t it exasperating when you open your mouth, but don’t say much?

Finally the president has spoken about George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Even as the country waited for his singular response – the nation’s leader and a law professor who once looked like Trayvon Martin – the president danced around the issues. And what a dramatic anti-climax, listening to the president refuse to say anything insightful or profound about the acquittal. In signature professorial style, the president gave us the “context” to the episode and to black people’s “pain.” But he didn’t offer a meaningful opinion on the episode’s hot molten core: racial profiling, vigilantism, and “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Benjamin continued his criticism of the President, using Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech at the NAACP convention as comparison.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered trenchant thoughts on the acquittal, demanding action. Before an audience of supporters, Holder recently called for a full investigation of Martin’s death after Zimmerman’s acquittal. Holder vowed that the Justice Department will act “in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law. We will not be afraid.”

While it’s easy to understand why Holder would speak more directly to the legal issues surrounding the case—he isn’t the President, but rather the top prosecutor in the nation—Benjamin continued to wonder why Holder was more brazen in his comments, while the President appeared more measured.

Instead of chalking it up to them being two different men holding two very different offices, Benjamin wondered if Holder was Obama’s true consciousness. But instead of asking this thoughtful question, the Salon writer decided to be inflammatory and drop the n-word.

Some of us have an Inner Child. Others have an Inner Nigger. Is Holder the president’s conscience? Or his Inner Nigger?

Is Holder the president’s aggressive internal mind and voice — willing to speak truth to power, but unbothered with appearing like an angry black man?

After the op-ed was published, many excoriated the writer for insinuating the Attorney General—because of his outspokenness—is a “nigger.”

I questioned Benjamin’s use of the word because he implies that an outspoken Black man who shows any sort of passion about an issue is a “nigger,” while a Black man who speaks from a more measured, less-fiery standpoint is somehow not as committed to his position.

Due to the backlash, Benjamin attempted to provide “context” for why he chose to use the divisive term, while also noting his “extreme admiration for the president and for the attorney general.” He cited W.E.B. DuBois, Fanz Fanon, and of course, hip hop to explain why he felt comfortable using the n-word.

He writes:

To speak of a person’s “inner child” is not to call that person a child. To speak of a person’s “inner diva” is not to call that person a diva. To speak of a person’s “inner nigger” is not to call that person a nigger. It is merely to wonder what aspect of that person’s outlook that person strategically covers.

He adds: Some Salon readers were upset by my use of the word “nigger.” I am not the first to use this term in public discussion, nor will I be the last. The term is in wide circulation in the streets, in private homes, in popular culture, in black-generated rap music, and in thoughtful scholarship, most notably in Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy’s exceptional tome, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” My use of the word isn’t haphazard or gratuitous. Language is central to race. Language has been central to Martin’s tragic death and to Zimmerman’s acquittal. Language is central to our implicit and explicit racial biases. As a writer, evaluating speeches, by two capable and eloquent public servants, I use the word “nigger” with deep understanding of its long, complicated existence.

I have a few questions for Benjamin:

Can White people have an “inner nigger”? How about Asians?

Was it necessary to use such a divisive term that is drenched in our country’s racist past along side the nation’s first black Attorney General (and President)?

Could he have not made the same point—about Eric Holder being President Obama’s more outspoken “consciousness” or “identity”–without reducing him to Obama’s “inner nigger”?

Of course Benjamin had other linguistic options, but in this day in age where page views and shares are what pays a publication’s bills (and their writers), it’s no surprise many leap to the lowest, most controversial denominators just to make a name for themselves and rake in the dough.

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  • JaeBee

    Did I miss something?

  • Ash

    Did these people flunk government in high school? I thought that the President’s comments were insightful and personal. It is Holder’s job to take it further and deal with the legal/policy side of the issue.

    How does that make Holder the President’s “inner n!gger”? How does doing his job make Eric Holder a “n!gger”? His explanation made no sense. I’m done with Salon….Slate is a better site anyway.

  • Misha

    Please turn around and look up becuase it seems that you completely missed what the article was about…

  • Texas Nexus by way of Austin

    “… Some of us have an Inner Child. Others have an Inner Nigger …” Holder is obama’s inner nigger.