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CNN Live Event/Special

CNN Special: "The N Word"

Aired July 01, 2013 - 19:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: "Nigger," that's what we're talking about tonight. Tonight, the "n" word, say it at your own peril.


PAULA DEEN, CELEBRITY CHEF: I beg for your forgiveness.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not in my mother's vocabulary. We were not raised in a home where that was used.

LEMON (voice-over): Does any other word compare?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Creepy ass cracker?


LEMON: Is it ever okay to say it? Even as a joke? Tonight, a CNN special, "The N Word."


LEMON: Only six letters, just two syllables, yet lethal. A word so powerful, so controversial we have to warn you that what you'll hear and see could offend you. But in order to explore the word and all of the meaning, there are times we actually have to say it. I'll say it if it's pertinent and my guests can feel free to say it if they are comfortable doing it.

Let's talk. Joining me now here in studio is Wynton Marsalis, is a famed jazz musician, Marc Lamont Hill, professor at Columbia University and Safiya Songhai, is a film maker and 2008 Miss Black Massachusetts USA, Lavar Burton, actor and director, and Father Jim O'Shea, a passionist Roman Catholic priest, Tim Wise, the author of "Color Blind." And of course, you at home tweeting us using #thenwordcnn.

So Wynton, let's start with you. Is it ever OK to use that word?

WYNTON MARSALIS, JAZZ MUSICIAN: Yes, I think that private instances where people use it. Like women might call themselves girls. Girl, yes, girl, but it's not cool for me to use it. I don't think because I hear a newscaster speak to another lady and say, yes, girl. I'm going to say, yes, girl. So, yes, I think it has its place.

LEMON: But girl and the "n" word, two different meanings. Did you think they're on the same level? MARSALIS: The "n" word is an electromagnetic word. It has the electric, the power, and it is part of our national history. People have referred to themselves as that, it is a word that has a lot of money attached to it. People made whole careers off using the "n" word. It repels and attracts. It's not the same word but the usage is the same. There are private words and public words which you might call your wife or spouse. What you might call somebody is not something that I can come in your house and start calling that person.

LEMON: I have to tell you that, you know, I sort of had mixed feelings about the "n" word. Should they say it? Maybe people are taking it back until I was researching this story and started looking at historical footage from the clan back in the day things from the civil rights movement and slavery. And I ran across something from the 1970s, right, which was roots. And it's Levar Burton being Toby. Let's watch and we'll talk to Levar.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your name is Toby. You're going to learn to say your name. Let me hear you say it. What's your name? Say it louder so we all can hear you. What's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Toby. My name is Toby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a good --


LEMON: Levar Burton, we're watching your expression as that was playing. What do you think?

LEVAR BURTON, ACTOR/DIRECTOR: Well, you know, Wynton is right. The word is really charged. I'm of an age where I have -- I've been exposed to, I've heard that word used all of my life. And having really become a words person in my life, Don, I fully understand the power of words. For me the word "nigger" is just that, it's a word. I know that it's really, really highly charged for a lot of people.

I have -- my relationship with the word has evolved over time. At this point in my life, what I come down to always, Don, is not the words themselves, but what is the intent that is being used behind the words that we use? And for me, that is the bottom line. The word itself does not have that much of a charge for me anymore because I have been acclimated to it over time.

And like I said, my relationship with the word has evolved over time, but it's really the intent. I look at the intent behind the use of any word. If we're using whatever word it is to cause injury or harm, then that's what we need to be looking at.

LEMON: OK. I want to say this -- I see you over there. A former CNN employee wrote this in an open letter on the Facebook page and she said this is an open letter to white people on the Facebook page. Although I don't agree with it, I know why some people in the African- American community use the word. My first question for you is, why do you want to use it, Sophia?

SAFIYA SONGHAI, FILMMAKER: Well, let me just start. I am a Cosby kid and I'm also a hip-hop kid. So my childhood was split right down the middle where you never say that word. And I first want to say, I did not learn the "n" word by young money cash money. I learned the word from Mark Twain. I learned the word from English lit and that was so much more painful and so much more damaging.

LEMON: But kids aren't running around quoting Mark Twain.

SONGHAI: But they are reading "To Kill A Mocking Bird," they are reading "Huckleberry Fin." Why do young kids do it? Why does anybody with low self-esteem, low self-worth and in some parts of the black community, they don't expect to live past the age of 20. Is it really a shock that people with low life expectancy projections --

LEMON: What are you saying? You think it's OK to use the word?

SONGHAI: It's not that it's OK.

LEMON: Do you use it?

SONGHAI: I do use it, Don. I use the word. It's one of those AA meetings or something.

LEMON: Is that something that black people don't want to admit?

SONGHAI: No, we admit it. We'll say -- here's when I use it. When I'm listening to a rap song and trying to be popular and I'm trying to be, you know, cool. I use it when I am trying to insult somebody because to me it's the worst swear word. And I use it lastly to describe somebody who is a bad -- like they walk in and like, who is that. I definitely say it at that point. I use the g-a.

LEMON: Before we do that, Paula Deen, her tearful apology. Look.


DEEN: If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you're out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please. I want to meet you. I want to meet you. I is what I is and I'm not changing.


LEMON: Mark, why are you shaking your head?

MARC LAMONT HILL, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Well, every time I watch it, I'm always waiting for the actual tears to come.

LEMON: But haven't you ever said something you want to take back?

HILL: Absolutely. And I'm not unforgiving about that, but if evidence had come up that Paula Deen has said it 50 years ago or 20 years ago or even five years ago and it was a mistake she's come to terms with, I could live with this. She wasn't going to court for using the "n" word, it was mistreatment of employees attached to the "n" word. I'm more concerned with her treating people like the "n" word and that at the core is the problem.

LEMON: So Father, I want to play, her sons were on "NEW DAY," our morning program here on CNN. Listen and I want to get your reaction.


BOBBY DEEN, PAULA DEEN'S SON: I can tell you this, that word, that horrifying, terrible word that exists and I abhor it coming from any person is not in my vocabulary, not in my brother's vocabulary. We were not raised in a home where that word was used.

JAMIE DEEN, PAULA DEEN'S SON: There are opportunists and my mom has admitted and she has apologized and as a person what more can you do?


LEMON: Father, is Paula Deen being punished for something people say all the time even African-Americans to each other daily on the street?

FATHER JIM O'SHEA, PASSIONIST PRIEST: I hear it all day long. I work in Brooklyn with young guys and hear it all day long. But I think at the same time the word itself and, again, I think the wasted time on Paula Deen on her saying the word who is a multimillionaire and will be fine no matter what happens doesn't, I think, communicate the reality of that -- what that "n" word means and the structures that produced it that created it in the beginning, but they continue now.

You know, every day, the same attitudes are creating the unfair structures that are really affecting young people today in the African-American community. You see it every day. Whatever Paula Deen said or didn't say or feeling, she's not that important. She's going to be wealthy and happy no matter what happens at the end of the day. The reality is today and tomorrow morning, what the "n" word produced is still happening. It's not from the past. And I think that's where we need to put more energy and let Paula Deen go where she goes. Let's look at what's going on.

LEMON: I know that Tim Wise feels the same way. We've spoken about this a lot. Tim, you said, listen, I really don't care in some ways what Paula Deen has to say about the "n" word it's much bigger than Paula Deen.

TIM WISE, AUTHOR, "COLORBLIND": The only thing about Paula Deen that troubles me is her world view that nostaligizes the antebellum south. That to me is a far bigger issue. But I agree with the last commentator. I mean, the reality is, we have a Supreme Court in the last ten days has just basically called 40 million black folks that word without saying it by restricting or limiting the voting rights act of 1965 and basically ending for all intent and purpose or, at least, limiting in many ways affirmative action.

So I'm far more concerned about the kind of racism that comes from very well educated law school-educated high powerful people who know well enough not to use that word, but still restrict opportunity based on the same kind of fundamental mentality that affects a lot of people, Paula Deen among them, perhaps, but at the end of the day, millions of us.

And I want to say with regard to this word, I agree with Levar, he makes a great point that context always matters. I'll say this as a white person doing antiracism work. I can think of no context where white folks should ever audibilize that word with regard to black folks. I want to make this clear because I know white people get upset because I've been around white people my life and they say, but black people get to use it, why can't I use it?

If that's the only thing you have to complain about as a white person that you don't get to use that word, your life is pretty sweet. The reality is, the difference is history. The difference is there has never been a history where white folks used that word vis-a-vis black people as a form of endearment or another word for friend or buddy or, let's get a burger at McDonald's, my "n" word.

I'm not saying that because I know all white people say it. Those were my main friends as a kid. I didn't use that word. We didn't use that. And so the idea that white folks can use that word because, you know, it's OK, it's like the old third grade wisdom or even like -- not even third grade, like kindergarten, I can talk about my mama, but you cannot talk about my mama. That's the difference.

LEMON: All right, Tim, I love it when you come on because you never say how you really feel.

WISE: Never.

LEMON: Ever, never. All right, stick around, guys, standby, the "n" word versus cracker. Are the two words equally as bad? And can Paula Deen be forgiven?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Comes from an era where that was normal. That was like saying any other word. It was nothing to them. I understand that. One day we're going to be embarrassed that we use such homophobic language generally. I'm from that generation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't get the feeling that she's racist, I think she did grow up in the south like she says, certain things are said, you know, I think way back in the day her family had slaves, but it comes a time when we have to really change the way we speak out of habit.



LEMON: Welcome back, everyone, to our special presentation the "N" word. The "N" word versus "cracker." Should one be acceptable while the other is taboo? Well, the comment that put this conversation front and center came from a witness at the George Zimmerman trial last week. Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Trayvon Martin's, was on the phone with Martin right before he was shot. She testified about how Martin described Zimmerman. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Creepy ass cracker?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So it was racial, but it was because Trayvon Martin put race in this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't think that's a racial comment?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't think that creepy ass cracker is a racial comment?



LEMON: Hmm, welcome back to our panel now. Wenton Marcellus, Marc Lamont Hill, Levar Burton and Tim Wise. Also joining us now, Michael Skolnik. He's the editor-in-chief of and filmmaker Rochelle Oliver joins us as well.

So Michael, were you surprised at all that Rachel Jeantel did not see this as racist, creepy ass cracker?

MICHAEL SKOLNIK, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, GLOBALGRIND.COM: No, I wasn't surprised. I think if you look at the word cracker, the word cracker comes from crike (ph), which is Gaelic for loud noise and was used in the eighteenth century as folks who whipped slaves, the crackers were the guys that whipped the slaves. So, I think if you look at the word cracker compare it to the "N" word, there's a huge difference in the use of both of those words. The "N" word has done so much damage when used improperly, and the word cracker has not done as much damage. So for a girl like Rachel Jeantel, she saw this as a descriptor of a guy who was chasing her friend who ultimately killed her friend.

MARC LAMONT HILL, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: (INAUDIBLE) there are people who say the same thing about the "N" word. It's not that cracker isn't offensive and it's not that cracker isn't racial, -- or maybe - I won't say racist, but certainly racial. It's certainly a racially offensive term. Let's not pretend that it's not. It is

The difference -- and here's the big point for me, is that there's no word that equals the "N" word. That's like the trump card in spades. That's the big joker. There's nothing that matches it because black and white aren't the same. They're not opposite sides of the same coin.

LEMON: So Levar, listen - go ahead, who is talking?

WISE: Yes, I was just going to say, the other difference is let's say for the sake of our argument that both of these men viewed each other through a racial lens. So, Zimmerman viewed Trayvon through the lens of a dangerous black young man in a hoodie, and Trayvon viewed him as a white cracker. Regardless, here's the point. To the extent that Trayvon viewed Zimmerman racially, he tried to avoid Zimmerman. To the extent Zimmerman viewed Trayvon racially, he pursued Trayvon. And that's the difference, because if he doesn't do that, we don't know either of these guys' names. Trayvon Martin is not dead, and George Zimmerman is just a wannabe cop who nobody knows. So that's the difference in the words; they have power behind them. One has power and one doesn't.

LEMON: So, Rochelle, does history matter here?

ROCHELLE OLIVER, FILMMAKER: History matters. I mean, history is not what we need to look at and, I mean, we heard just a moment ago about the use of the word cracker. That is not even a racial term when you look at the history of it. The cracker was the person who whipped the slaves. And as the cracker whipped the slaves, he would not use their name. He would call them nigger, you did this. You don't - you something wrong. And the crack was just a sound of the whip.

And, you know, you didn't have to be white to be a cracker. Blacks were also sometimes used to be crackers. So, history does matter. And if you look at the situation with Trayvon, he should be commended because he actually used the term correctly.

HILL: I can't -- we can't -- use the term correctly, though? I mean, none of us would tell our children to go around calling white people cracker.

LEMON: Exactly. That's a very good point.

HILL: None of us would say that cracker's an appropriate term. I'm all for saying the "N" word is the most offensive term on the planet. I'm with that. But we can have that argument without suggesting somehow that cracker isn't racialized --

SKOLNIK: Yes, but I think Marc, but the problem is that there's a conversation - I was listening to Tim before -- about white people who want to say, oh it's equal, there's racism on both sides. No, there isn't. The majority of racism in this country is geared toward people of color. White people are not the subjects of racism.

HILL: I agree with that, but what I'm saying --

LEMON: Michael, you can't say that white people aren't --

SKOLNIK: To the extent --

LEMON: There are white people that are racist, there are black people who attack white people --

SKOLNIK: The damage that history of this country has been to the people of color, not to white people. White people have prevailed in the history of this country.

WYNTON MARSALIS, MANAGING DIRECTOR, JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER: Let's take a broader view. There's a whole 100-year body of ministral music in which the term nigger is used constantly. The history of that term, which has just come back through other forms of music, where nigger is always pejorative.

When we look at a word like cracker, black people in general - black Americans are not interested in being racist towards white people because we're victimized by so many words, I listen to somebody say I read about nigger. Every other word when I was growing up was nigger, all across the board, black or white. Nigger this, nigger that.

But when we take a humanistic view, we say where do we want our culture, where do we want our country to go? Let's take the fact that the man was walking - a boy was walking through a neighborhood, and he was shot by a man who the police said don't mess with this man. And these young men all over the country, every movie, every film, every book that portrays black youngsters as predators -- and our young kids are full of fear and they need that hand and love so bad, but they're seen in such a negative light and re-enforced in film and --

LEMON: I want to ask a question because there are African-American men on the panel. Have you ever been followed or -- in a manner similar? Obviously, you're still here, have you ever been?


HILL: Hey --


LEMON: Okay.

MARSALIS: I've been followed by black and white people.

LEMON: What about you, Levar, have you ever been followed?

BURTON: Listen, I'm going to be honest with you -- and this is a practice that I engage in every time I'm stopped by law enforcement. And I taught this to my son who is now 33 as part of my duty as a father to ensure that he knows the kind of world in which he's growing up.

So, when I get stopped by the police, I take my hat off and my sunglasses off. I put them on the passenger side. I roll down my window, I take my hands, stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver side because I want that officer to be as relaxed as he can be when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America.

LEMON: Right.

BURTON: And because --

LEMON: But, Tim, before I go to you, very similar thing. Although I am a little bit more of an uppity you-know-what because I actually get offended, like why did you stop me? What did I do? Growing up in Louisiana, people would stop me, my parents did very well. They say where did you get that car, nigger? Whose car is this? Right?

And so I was coming back from Florida a couple of years ago with someone I was dating who happened to be white. And he said, I never had the police deal with me like that. I'm like, hello, welcome to my life. You don't understand, it doesn't exist for you. Doesn't exist.

HILL: That's why I don't like white people to use the "N" word. Because they never get treated like niggers.


LEMON: Go ahead.

WISE: What Levar just said is so heavy. And I want white folks watching this show to see how heavy it is. Because here I am. I know Wynton's from New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans for ten years and I told you this story once on a show before, but back when I was 23 living in New Orleans, I had graduated from Tulane. And one day, I locked myself out of my car on Roberts Street. And so I'm trying to break into my car with a coat hanger, and a cop comes up and he sees me doing it. And he does not even ask me for I.D. or proof that's my car. He actually, literally, the NOPD - let me finish. The NOPD -- and I know Wynton will appreciate this story. The NOPD was like, hey, you're breaking into the car the wrong way. Let me help you. Like the cop was trying to help me break in.

Now there is not a black man in this country 23 years old for whom that would have been the reaction. And I hope people understand how, like Levar having to put his hands out the window. Basically what my mom told me was, be nice to cops. She didn't say don't move your hands because you're going to get shot. None of that. That is about white privilege, that is about racism, and that is the fundamental difference between the "N" word and any other racial term on this planet. That is exactly the point.

LEMON: Let's get back to the words, let's get back to the "N" word and to cracker. Because again, as I was researching this, and I saw this clip, I remembered and was like, wow, this would never fly today on television. Listen.





CHASE: Burr head.

PRYOR: Cracker.


CHASE: Spear chucker.

PRYOR: White trash.


CHASE: Jungle bunny.

PRYOR: Honkey!


CHASE: Spade.

PRYOR: Honky, honky!


CHASE: Nigger.

PRYOR: Dead honkey.



LEMON: Rochelle, should we be censoring sketches like that, things like that on television? Or should we be talking about it more?

OLIVER: It's an interesting thing. We talked about context earlier on in the conversation. And words have power. The "N" word has power. And if you don't understand how to use that power, if you don't know the history and the culture that goes into these words, then you will misuse them. And that's what we're seeing, you know, with Paula Deen, she's misusing the word and doesn't really understand how offensive it can be to people. And that's when you run the risk --

WISE: The damage --

OLIVER: The damage. That's when the damage is done.

HILL: That's why we shouldn't censor it, right? For example, if you're using it for puristic (ph) purposes, if Don, if you sit here right now and say nigger as opposed to the "N" word so that people know what Paula Deen said, that matters. There's a value to that. Because what happens is, we'll say Paula Deen allegedly used the "N" word. So and so allegedly used the "N" word. If people just hear the "N" word and if they hear that in a sense. I want people to viscerally hear nigger because that's what Paula Deen allegedly said. If she said that, I want people to feel that in their bones.

LEMON: Yes, you sanitize it when you do that. I've long said that. Go ahead, Rochelle.

OLIVER: I'm sorry, just saying the word doesn't say -- doesn't mean that you're using it correctly. We need to use it correctly in that skit you just showed. They knew what they were doing. Comedians know their words, they know their audience. And they know how to use it and the way to say it correctly. I don't think that people should be walking around the streets saying the words. And I don't approve of anyone saying it actually just because they've become comfortable.

LEMON: OK - OK - Wynton, go ahead.

MARSALIS: Well, I think that the word is like hot sauce or sugar. You going to put hot sauce on everything, egg, ice cream, everything you put hot sauce on?

LEMON: You do if you're in Louisiana.


MARSALIS: You know what I'm saying? But I want to say that the history of race relations in America is always black and white versus white. Let's never lose sight of that. What Tim said before, it was about the whole Supreme Court decisions, these are matters. Now we're going to talk about whether somebody use the word nigger when nigger is being used constantly. Look at that skit, the proliferation of nigger in the 1990s and '80s, when we saw that come back around as musicians added to bitch and all the other profanities and stupidity and ignorance, just every day, language for our young people, and we accept it?


LEMON: Stand by, stand by, stand by. Much more to come. We still have a lot of show left here. So next the "N" word, it's dark history. You guys are giving each other dap over here?


LEMON: The "N" word, the dark history, the power, and the celebrities and musicians, well, the ones who use it.


OMAROSA MANIGAULT, REALITY TV SHOW PERSONALITY: I believe, certainly, you should never use the "N" word. Unfortunately I see in the rap culture and some of the hip-hop culture it's used very frequently. And so there is this double standard.

SANNA LATHAN, ACTRESS: It's really the intention behind the word. So I see people use it where the intention is like, you are my family. And then I see people use it like you are a piece of, you know, bleep.



LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Tonight, we're talking about the N- word. It's a highly sensitive topic, but how much power does the word really hold? Fair warning: some of what you're about to hear in the next story may be offensive. But we felt we could not fully examine the history of the N-word without using it in our reporting.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are still niggers in American Army uniforms --

LEMON (voice-over): It was said without thinking, painting an entire race with a single word. But it wasn't always a slur. Originally, the Latin N-I-G-E-R just meant black.

But at the dawn of America, it became N-I-G-E-R became N-E-G-A-R to describe some of the first shipments of African slaves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?


My name is Toby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a good name.

LEMON: And with slavery, the word was contorted into its current dark, dark, degrading hateful insult for African-Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the Ku Klux Klan. We hate niggers. Look out, niggers, the Klan is getting bigger.

LEMON: Over time, it's appeared in everything from ugly propaganda to cartoons to nursery rhymes. "Eeny, meeny" didn't always end with "catch a tiger by the toe."

It was tossed about casually in movies well into the 20th century, part of the way of life. But also, sometimes to raise consciousness. And in the civil rights era, the stigma came to a head. Author James Baldwin in the 1963 documentary "Take This Hammer."

JAMES BALDWIN, AUTHOR: We have invented the nigger. I didn't invent it. White people invented it.

LEMON: In the 1970s emerged a new willingness to explore the impact of the word, and even satirized it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And isn't it a lovely morning?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Up yours, nigger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you two really started going one another inside a five-minute, he'd be calling you --



LEMON: It hardly disappeared in the 1980s and '90s, though white people said the word publicly, some black people did, a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Black people, these niggers. Niggers have got to go.


LEMON: As a society, we've tried to ignore it, ban it, literally bury it.

REPORTER: The NAACP held this symbolic funeral for the N-word.

LEMON: And we've perhaps added more gravity to the word just by refusing to say it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whenever a white lady on CNN with nice hair says the N-word, that's just white people getting away with saying nigger. That's all that is.


LEMON: Well, tonight, we have a lot of people getting away with saying the word, and given the word's dark history, some have tried to reclaim its power to use it in other ways, like in art and in music.

And CNN contributor Donna Brazile joins us now to go through some examples.

Donna, thank you so much for joining us.

Your prospective on this is profound. Like you, like I do, you spent a couple of generations here. So, you get it. You get the whole incarnation of the whole world.

Is there such thing as a good use of the word even in lyrics?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, I don't believe -- you should use this word at all. By the 1900s, it had become a pejorative word. And in 1619, when the first group of blacks were shipped to the United States, they were called that "negar" as you said in your report. It derives from the Latin term niger, the Spanish Portuguese word for "black".

But it had become so insulting, demeaning, and threatening, many Americans, citizens were killed when that word were used, lynching, there's so many negative connotations that I don't believe in the cultural way, the way it's used by, say, some artists. They spell it differently N-I-G-G-A versus N-I-G-G-E-R, perhaps thinking there's some affection to the term.

LEMON: You can't.

BRAZILE: My home boy -- no. You know, I was taught very early in life when I heard the word never to repeat it, never to use it, and my mother would also tell us it's not what you call someone, it's what they answer to. Meaning, if we were called, heard when (INAUDIBLE), the N-word, don't respond to it, don't react to it. So I find it highly offensive. And I'm glad --

LEMON: And, Donna --

BRAZILE: And I'm glad that Paula Deen has stepped out and said I'm sorry. She should be forgiven.

But, as you know, forgiveness is only the first step. But the truth of the matter is, it's a very offensive term. And the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus and others said we should bury the word and I tend to agree with them.

LEMON: Donna, my gosh, I've never seen you so passionate about this, anything outside of politics. It's just amazing.

I want you to listen to this. It's from Kanye West. And I want to -- I want to get your reaction to it.



LEMON: OK. That was a cleaned up version, actually.

BRAZILE: Yes, very --

LEMON: Because the other version says, niggers might steal your Lexus, might steal your necklace. And I hear this and I hear people saying in public, those are the lyrics, I was in the barbershop yesterday, and someone say, you know, those niggers coming here, and I turned and I said, you know, you need to watch CNN tomorrow night. To me, it's just the -- the word just -- I don't know, it conjures something in me I can't explain to you.

BRAZILE: You know, when you hear rappers, when you hear entertainers, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, J-Lo, there's a long list of celebrities who gotten in hot water for using the word. Of course, when I listen to some of your guests, including my home boy and others on the show --

LEMON: You guys grew up what a couple of blocks apart?

BRAZILE: Oh, I mean, four blocks apart, what separated the two of us was Taylor and Jackson Street because I was on Fillmore (INAUDIBLE) streets, so I love this man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She heard the word a lot, too.

BRAZILE: I heard it on both sides of the levee. I heard it on both sides of the railroad tracks.

But we know the power words. It's important, especially now when we hear it so often in our neighborhoods, in our schools, at the grocery stores, in the barber shop, we need to let people know it is not a good word.

LEMON: Well --

BRAZILE: We still need to teach our children, the meaning of that word and the way it was used, it's insulting, and we should not use that word.

LEMON: All right. Well said, Donna. Thank you. Appreciate that.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

LEMON: And Donna mentioned Paul Deen, we're going to talk about Paula Deen again.

Paula Deen has seen her empire come crashing down after admitting she used the N-word many years ago. And while the backlash against the queen of Southern cooking has been punishing, she's certainly not the first celebrity to use a derogatory word yet for some uttering the N- word's not always a career ender.

Here's Nischelle Turner.


PAULA DEEN, CELEBRITY CHEF: If you never committed a sin, please pick up that rock, pick up that boulder --

NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Despite Paula Deen's tearful and emotional "Today" show interview where she told Matt Lauer she is not a racist, her once piping hot career as a celebrity chef has gone cold.

(on camera): It seems like her admitting to using the N-word in the past has really been career napalm for her.

LARRY KOPP, FOUNDER, THE TASC GROUP: I agree. It's destroyed an 8, 9-figure empire, a multimillion dollar empire. And it's destroyed it fairly quickly.

TURNER: She's not the first non-black celebrity and won't be the last facing career turmoil after an N-word controversy.

MICHAEL RICHARDS, ACTOR: I'm very, very sorry to the African-American community.

TURNER: Perhaps most notable was "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards who while performing a stand-up comedy routine in 2006, shouted the N- word multiple times at some hecklers who were black. The outrage that followed was fierce. Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a boycott of "Seinfeld" DVDs. Richards later appeared alongside Jackson to apologize.

Reality star Dog the Bounty Hunter found himself in the dog house in 2008 after a leaked recording of him repeatedly using the N-word surfaced online. A&E briefly suspended his show and Dog vowed never to utter the word again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

TURNER: Radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger repeated the N-word 11 times to an African-American caller seeking advice in 2010. She apologized for her remarks, but that didn't stop sponsors and affiliates from cutting ties. But is the reaction different when the word is sung instead of said?

Take Jennifer Lopez' 2001 hit "I'm real" with rapper Ja Rule. She said the N-word in the line of the song and faced criticism at the time. But in the end, it didn't damage her bottom line. According to "Forbes" magazine, Lopez made more than $45 million last year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm curious what makes you so curious.

TURNER: No long-term damage to director Quentin Tarantino's career either after his 2013 Oscar-nominated film "Django Unchained." Tarantino used the N-word at last 106 times in the film and faced heavy backlash that he went too far.

QUENTIN TARANTINO, FILM DIRECTOR: All that criticism that came out, it ended up being kind of a good thing because one of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to actually start a conversation about slavery, about America's role in it.

KOPP: I cannot think of a word that is more racially charged, more explosive than this word.

TURNER: A word for which the penalty can mean career death or millions at the box office.


LEMON: All right. And joining me now is CNN's Nischelle Turner. We're talking here.

TURNER: We're having this conversation, yes.

LEMON: Nischelle Turner, Wynton Marsalis is managing editor at Jazz Lincoln Center, and Michel Skolnik, editor in chief of

Why do you think celebrities feel they can say the N-word so freely? And do they ever wonder if they're going to get in trouble?

TURNER: I don't know if they think they can say it so freely, I think in cases like Jennifer Lopez like we saw and in cases like Quentin Tarantino in "Django Unchained", they feel it's a little bit more creative license.

And in J.Lo's case which I thought was interesting at the time, so many African-Americans came to her defense when she said the word in the song. I mean, Ja Rule was the first who wrote the song. That was a point where she was with Sean Diddy Combs, kind of like she had a pass.

LEMON: Was it because she's Hispanic and maybe not white? TURNER: Maybe, but she kind of had her black card at that point, it seemed like, because she was with Diddy. She was a little more hip- hop. So it seemed to be OK, which I never really understood.

LEMON: So then why -- Michael Richards, why is he castigated? I haven't seen him doing anything for a long time, I'm sure he's probably doing OK. And others like J.Lo and Quentin seem to get a pass?

MICHAEL SKOLNIK, GLOBALGRIND.COM: Because it was hate speech. When Michael Richards said it was hate speech. I want to stand up for hip- hop if I can. As a kid who group in hip-hop in New York, I've got to stand up for hip-hop and I think the use of the word in hip-hop is powerful. I think language is powerful.

I'm going to disagree with my elders here for a little bit. I think language is powerful. I think the ownership of language is powerful, taking it back, watching Kanye West, you know, use the N-word in that song, it's a song called "Jesus Walks." It's about Jesus, and he's using a word --

LEMON: So, what does Jesus have to do with the N-word?

SKOLNIK: He's using the word as a term of endearment. The song was a powerful uplifting record. These are not records that are hateful speech like Michael Richards used it or Paula Deen.


WYNTON MARSALIS, MANAGING AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER: I want to -- let me just state one thing. When you take the history of African-American music, what we ended up doing when we got to hip hop and the way we used language and disrespected women and disrespected ourselves is an international embarrassment.

TURNER: There's (ph) that.

MARSALIS: And if you are not from America and you don't know this dialogue, when you go to Japan, Italy, France, all the places I see people and they turn these things on and say what happened to you people? It is an embarrassment and we should not. You know, there's many uses of the word, but the majority of those recordings are not using it in any type powerful way. It's shameful.

LEMON: Come here.


SKOLNIK: We're going to agree to disagree.

MARSALIS: There's nothing wrong with disagreeing.


MARSALIS: But we will disagree with that.

LEMON: You have to disagree during the commercial break because we've got to run.

Still to come, the future of the N-word, will it ever be acceptable to say? Can it be reclaimed?



LEMON: I'm going to show you some words, right, and you have to tell me if they offend you. Do you ever use that word?


LEMON: Never? Does it offend you?


LEMON: If somebody calls you that --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't take it lightly, no.

LEMON: And what about this word on top?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I find it offensive, as well.

LEMON: This doesn't offend you?


LEMON: Really? Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For some reason, it's in a friendly manner.

LEMON: You're Hispanic, do you say that word?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once in a while.

LEMON: You do? To?


LEMON: In a bad way or term of endearment?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Endearment, like friendly manner.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see people my age saying this all the time in both demeaning and affectionate way.

LEMON: What about that word?


LEMON: To anybody?


LEMON: You're 19 years old.


LEMON: When you hear people use this, what do you think?


LEMON: Is there a difference between these two words?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a difference.

LEMON: And the difference is?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One would be more offending.

UNIDENTIFEID FEMALE: What's interesting about this word, it's transformed into like having a lot of different meanings, you know, and kind of like you're my friend, my equal.


LEMON: All right. So, what does the N-word mean to you? You heard honest opinions of people of different generations and different races.

The word is without a doubt one of the most offensive in the English language, but has the meaning been disarmed as Jay-Z puts it by the current generation? Or will it forever carry a lethal racist connotation?

I'm joined now again by Marc Lamont Hill, professor at Columbia University, Safiya Songhai, filmmaker and 2008 Miss Black Massachusetts USA, and Michael Skolnik, editor in chief of Global Grind.

OK. So listen, these two words. I'm telling you, young people on the street said this word is different than that word.

So, do you think that its -- lot I'm going to start --


MARC LAMONT HILL, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: That's a shorthand. Let's be clear. It's a shorthand. It's not that these two words necessarily mean something different. That's the shorthand for this.

Black English tends to function like this. When black people say nigga, it's fine. No black people will say, ho, what's up my nigger? They say nigga. When you hear nigger, it's coming from a white person. That's the problem.

The bottom line here is that white people shouldn't say this. Black people, we can debate of whether or not they should say this. But white people, just shut --

(CROSSTALK) LEMON: Do you think it's because they didn't go through the civil rights movement? I mean, I was a child in the '70s. And I remember right after the civil rights movement, I know when black people went through, my family and my parents fighting for civil rights. And you were brought up not to say that word, is that because --

HILL: But let's not be romantic of our history. Martin Luther King one day was looking --

LEMON: You can be romantic. History is good. You said Martin Luther King, I want to be romantic about that.

HILL: Yes, let's be romantic. But sure, Martin Luther King when they were looking for Andrew Young. And when Andrew Young finally came back into the building, he said, little nigga, where have you been? That's a documented fact.

LEMON: Right.

HILL: I don't think Martin people didn't love black people. You know, he's the patron saint of blackness and civil rights. He loved black people, but sometimes black people say nigga and it means something different.

LEMON: Go ahead.

SAFIYA SONGHAI, FILMMAKER: What's the question again, Don?


SONGHAI: I see these cards. What means what? OK, I asked every cousin under the age of 21. I was like, what do these words mean to you?

They all categorically said, this is a fighting word. My cousins who are 15 years old, I don't even know she was that aggressive, she said, I will punch somebody if they say the word.


SONGHAI: So, I don't think --

HILL: Because they mean white people.

SONGHAI: And also, because people said this behind their breath, like they were about to scream you up, and put your on fire.


LEMON: I want Michael to respond. Let's play Oprah and Jay-Z, Jay-Z explaining why he thinks it's OK.


OPRAH WINFREY, TV HOST: You know, I've been known for not being a big fan of rap music because of misogynist lyrics and because of the use of the N-word. You feel differently.

JAY-Z, RAPPER: Li'l bit.

WINFREY: Li'l bit, and tell everybody why.

JAY-Z: What we're discussing is moral (ph) words. People give words power. And for our generation, what we did was we took the word and the power out of that word. We turned a word that was very ugly and hurtful into a term of endearment.


LEMON: All right, Mr. Hip-hop generation. Oprah defends it.

SKOLNIK: I respect Sean Carter for that, for that statement. I would never say either of these words. These are two words that would never come out of my mouth personally and I think that many in white America would love for black people to have the conversation of should you say this word or not. Because the fact of the matter is, there are so many black people in this country, who are suffering from bad education, bad health care, bad living conditions, no jobs, and they'd much rather have this discussion than that discussion.

LEMON: All right. OK, stand by.

More of our special on the n word next. Are we dwelling on the past? Romanticizing it? As Marc Lamont Hill said.


LEMON: The N-word, just the sound of it is toxic, which is why it caught on, why it rolled off the tongue of slave owners and segregationists and Klansmen and racists. And sadly, it now flows freely from the mouths of the very people who would have been called that disgusting, vile, nasty word before someone beat, shot, raped or lynched them.

So, while you may think it's cool or hip or profound to try to take the word back by bastardizing it, it's not. By promoting the use of that word when it's not germane to the conversation, have you ever considered that you may just be perpetuating the stereotype the master intended, acting like a nigger?

I'm Don Lemon. "A.C. 360" is next.