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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The N Word

The NY Times has an interesting story about Randy Kennedy (Law, Harvard).  Apparently, he agreed to testify as an expert on the use of the N word in a trial court in Queens, where a defendant was being charged with a hate crime at least in part for using the N word during the perpetration of his crime.  Kennedy testified for the defense (for free) that the N word has many meanings and cannot be presumed to be used with racial animus.

A few things to note.  First, the idea that one needs to call a Harvard Law professor as a witness to tell a jury that the word 'nigger' is not always used as a racial epithet seems odd.  I wouldn't think such an eminent authority is necessary for entering testimony about how people talk in the street.  Yet there is something undoubtedly clever about calling legal authority with fancy credentials to make a sociological observation that almost everyone knows.

Second, the defense's ability to get Kennedy to do it for free is, at first blush, pretty impressive.  The article suggests that even the cost of airfare was borne by Kennedy.  Of course, I suspect Harvard itself covered the cost of the trip.  And it is perhaps interesting to see more small ways institutional backing helps an academic deliver his message to the world.   

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 8, 2006 at 11:40 AM | Permalink


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I agree that it is odd for a law professor to testify with respect to the use of the term "nigger," but I don't think there is a context -- street or otherwise -- in which the word "nigger" is used as a positive. It always connotes inferiority, even when used on the street.

The more affectionate term used on the street by African Americans that is not intended as an insult, is actually "nigga." The term is used variously to mean "friend," "brother" or even just "guy."

That's a distinction I think a jury might need to know, but it seems to me a language professor would be a more likely expert.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 13, 2006 9:52:14 AM

Along similar lines, the U.S Supreme Court once cited a state regulators' report for the not-so-shocking proposition that teens want instant gratification. See this quote from Granholm v. Heald (May 05):
Third, direct shipping is an imperfect avenue of obtaining alcohol for minors who, in the words of the past president of the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators, " 'want instant gratification.' " Id., at 33, and n. 137 (explaining why minors rarely buy alcohol via the mail or the Internet).

As Dennis Miller often said on the SNL newscast, "this just in from the medical journal 'Duh,' . . ."

Posted by: just me | Jun 12, 2006 4:40:31 PM

Interestingly, the prosecution apparently passed on Al Sharpton's offer to testify to a different common understanding of the N-word:

Posted by: Brooks | Jun 8, 2006 3:40:28 PM

Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. I was making a few points, most of which are actually in agreement with yours. We agree that a "legal authority" is perhaps an odd expert to call if your argument is one about the use of language generally (whether as a matter of sociology or socio-liguistics). I was trying to suggest, however, that it was a clever strategy to cloak an empirical language-use point as a matter of law. Of course the real legal question -- whether this particular individual used the word as an epithet or not -- is something Kennedy could know nothing about. And the idea that one needs Kennedy to establish that 'nigger' is used in many ways that are not racial epithets strikes me as a sort of pedestrian point for a Harvard LAW professor to be making.

Based on the context, I hope you see that I was trying to focus on the law professor part of the equation; I surely did not mean that one couldn't call a credible expert (in socioliguistics, to boot!) on "street language" to give such testimony. Though I suppose if the only point one is trying to make is that 'nigger' can be used in ways that aren't offensive, I would tend to think calling any expert with fancy credentials is mere posturing.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 8, 2006 2:50:28 PM

Isn't there a rule against allowing an expert to testify on matters that "everyone knows"? If it's a matter for judicial notice, then it should be exclusively that. If it's a matter of common knowledge, the jury should know it.

On the other hand, if it's a matter of more than just people's linguistic prejudices ("Well, I always heard it as X," or "I never realized it could be Y," or "My uncle taught me that Z") then it's probably a good idea to ask someone who's actually studied the legal classification of words as hate speech or not about prevailing analyses, views, and conclusions.

Everyone thinks that they're an expert on language - and I apply this most of all to you, Ethan, for writing that you "wouldn't think such an eminent authority is necessary for entering testimony about how people talk in the street." That's a perfectly sensible, and abjectly ignorant of sociolinguistics, point of view.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's linguistics' failing, not yours, that you assume it's just common sense and everyday experience.

Of course, getting a _law_ professor, rather than an empirical linguist, makes me suspicious.

And naturally all of this is just a way to get in a plug for my own post on an N-word, "niggardly."

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | Jun 8, 2006 2:34:10 PM

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