"The N-word" crashes into politics

The N-word has reared its ugly head in two political races in recent days. The first case takes us to the trouble campaign of Sen. George Allen (R-VA). Michael Sherer broke the story on Salon.com on Sunday:

Three former college football teammates of Sen. George Allen say that the Virginia Republican repeatedly used an inflammatory racial epithet and demonstrated racist attitudes toward blacks during the early 1970s.

"Allen said he came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where 'blacks knew their place,'" said Dr. Ken Shelton, a white radiologist in North Carolina who played tight end for the University of Virginia football team when Allen was quarterback. "He used the N-word on a regular basis back then."

A second white teammate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the Allen campaign, separately claimed that Allen used the word "nigger" to describe blacks. "It was so common with George when he was among his white friends. This is the terminology he used," the teammate said.

Sherer's story had more details, but the N-word allegation broke into the Associated Press today, making it a bona fide news story.

Sen. Allen calls the charges "ludicrously false." But Allen is now dealing with a pattern -- first his "macaca moment," and also the little-covered photograph of Allen with fellow enthusiasts of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which, among other repellent positions, opposes "race mixing."

Allen's not the only one: last week, the NAACP called on Texas independent and self-styled populist candidate Kinky Friedman to renounce his use of the N-word in comedy sketches dating back to 1980. As with Allen, the issue is the pattern:

Earlier this month, Friedman referred to Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston, most of whom are black, as "crackheads and thugs." [...]

Then a television interview from a year ago resurfaced in which Friedman was asked what to do about sexual predators. He said: "Throw them in prison and throw away the key and make them listen to a Negro talking to himself."

Current and would-be politicians should definitely be held accountable if they use racist speech, although the narrow focus on "gotcha" moments and N-word bombs can have the feel of election-year opportunism. For example, there's been little outcry recently against Sen. Trent Lott, whose nostalgia for Jim Crow and other dubious racial views is also well-documented. There's also the 13 Senators who declined to support a resolution against lynching last summer, who seem to have escaped that episode scandal-free.