The phone rang and the caller ID told me it was a source of mine. A white Detroit police homicide detective. A detective who had a reputation for working hard to solve cases no matter the race of the victim or suspect. He had a higher-than-average closure rate on the cases he was assigned.
"That Mark Fuhrman is the dumbest police detective I've ever heard testify," he opened, with no preliminaries.
Fuhrman, who is white, had just discredited himself while testifying during the OJ Simpson murder trial. While answering a question he asserted he'd never used the 'n' word. Then the defense presented evidence that in taped interviews with an author, he'd used it 41 times.
Some legal experts believe this factored as much into the not guilty verdict as the gloves found at the murder scene that didn't fit Simpson's hands.
"What would you have said if you were asked that under oath?" I asked my source.
"I'd look the attorney straight in the eye," he answered, "and I'd say, 'of course I've used the 'n' word counselor.'"
I must have sounded a bit astonished when I followed up with a short, "you would?"
"Of course," he said. "Every white person on that jury's used the 'n' word at one time or another. And every black person on that jury knows every white person's used the 'n' word. So why lie about it?"
I don't know if that's really true, but it stands to reason that many, if not most, jurors would probably hold that it is. But if it is true, is it right?
Michael Richards, the comedian best known for playing Kramer on "Seinfeld," was roundly criticized when he tried to shut down some hecklers while doing stand-up in an LA comedy club by using the 'n' word. As a comedian, he might have thought his retort was funny. But he was in a distinct minority.
Now another comedian is in hot water for his use of the 'n' word. Bill Maher was having a conversation with Republican Senator Ben Sasse on his HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher" when Sasse invited him to work the fields in his state of Nebraska. Maher's response was, "Senator, I'm a house n-----." Though he ended it with an "ah" sound, not an "er" which, to some people may make a difference.
Some people I've spoken to today think Maher will get the pass Michaels didn't because of his political leanings.
I recall several years ago when someone proposed a New York City ordinance which would make using the 'n' word illegal. It raised all kinds of First Amendment concerns and no one seemed to take it seriously. But it did open up a discussion. Which may have been the intent anyway.
I decided to go to Harlem and stand in front of the famed Apollo Theater and ask passersby what they thought of people using the 'n' word. Part of the debate revolved around the fact that many young black people used it, perhaps influenced by rap lyrics which were often laced with the word in question.
Many of the older generation African Americans I interviewed thought it totally inappropriate, no matter who said it and no matter if it ended in an "ah" or an "er" sound. Conversely, a lot of the younger black people I spoke with said it was OK, arguing it can't be used as a weapon if blacks don't let it bother them.
But, as I recall, no one thought it was OK for white people to use it.