When a microphone at Fox News Channel caught Rev. Jesse Jackson's cutting under-his-breath remarks about Barack Obama, it turns out that "nuts" was not the reverend's only troubling N-word.
Besides whispering to another guest on the set that he would like to de-sex the Democratic presidential candidate, Jackson also accused Obama of "talking down to black people . . . telling niggers how to behave."
Jackson has since issued two statements of apology for his self-described "trash talking." He also might issue this word of advice: If you want to whisper something that could be damaging if traced back to you, don't whisper it over a microphone.
Am I surprised by Jackson's use of the racial slur? Not really. I was more surprised to hear that so many other people are shocked, especially non-African Americans.
Ethnic etiquette has always given greater latitude to epithets expressed about one's own ethnic group, as long as they are expressed inside of one's ethnic group. That's how people talk within one's family or ethnic group, especially when you regard your ethnic group as affectionately as you regard your nuclear family.
But if we hold Jackson to a higher standard, it is because he has held us to one too. Remember how comedian Michael Richards, the famous Kramer on TV's "Seinfeld," sought forgiveness from Revs. Jackson and Al Sharpton after disgracing himself with an N-word tirade at Los Angeles' Laugh Factory? The club's owner Jamie Masada now fines comics a charitable contribution of $50 for every time they use the word in their act. He wants Jackson to pay the same amount, he says, to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Pay up, reverend.
That's just one sign that the N-word etiquette appears to have changed.
For example, the rap star NaS, born Nasir Jones, announced late last year that he was going to release an album with the N-word as its title. But, after months of delays and reports of turmoil inside his record label, the CD has been released untitled.
Which raises an interesting question for pop art historians to consider: Could Richard Pryor have released his hit 1970s album "That Nigger's Crazy" today?
Or how about the white New York disc jockey who later released an answer album called "This Honky's Nuts"? That white disc jockey's name was Don Imus. Yes, he's the same pioneer shock jock whose "nappy-headed hos" remark cost him his CBS Radio and MSNBC shows. He has since returned to the air through a smaller radio syndicate.
Imus pleaded that his language came from the world of black hip hop. This should serve as a warning to white people to always use rap lingo with great caution, unless maybe your name is Eminem.
I was not the only observer who mocked the NAACP for its ceremony to "bury the N-word" at its Detroit convention last year. But maybe the anti-N-word backlash is having an impact. As African-Americans have learned for generations, social change comes after thousands of ordinary citizens change their attitudes and behavior.
Which brings us back to what upset Rev. Jackson in the first place. His claims that Obama was "talking down to black people" and telling us (insert N-word) "how to behave" ring hollow. Obama has not told black people to do anything that Jackson has not also told us to do. Besides, the roaring enthusiasm of Obama's reception at the NAACP annual convention last week indicates the civil rights community does not feel that Obama has talked down to them.
So, is Jackson over the hill? His glory has faded since he scored an impressive 7 million votes in his second presidential run 20 years ago. And black folks are quite comfortable with paying proper respect to more than one leader at a time.
It is us in the mainstream media who keep insisting on acknowledging only one black leader at a time. We need to widen our lens.