Pappa John’s Pizza founder John Schnatter, who recently resigned as chairman of its board, did not use the n-word to describe black people. He unfavorably described Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC, as using the n-word to describe black people, in discussing the unfortunate racism of the past. That has not stopped journalists from falsely suggesting that Schnatter labeled black people as the n-word — as Inside Higher Ed did in reporting that “John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, on Wednesday apologized for using a racial slur to describe black people.”
Due to negative publicity, Schnatter not only resigned as Pappa John’s chairman but also stepped down as trustee of University of Louisville. And he was denounced by a spokesman for the ungrateful University of Kentucky, to which Schnatter’s foundation has given millions of dollars. The spokesman declared that Schnatter, a generous benefactor to his university, was “rightly receiving” “heavy criticism.”
Recounting the unfortunate fact that someone else used the n-word to describe black people is not the same as labeling black people as N**rs. If it were, reading from Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn would be deemed improper. Huckleberry Finn contains passages such as this:
“Good gracious! Was anyone hurt?”
“No, ma’am. It just killed a n—-r.”
“Well, that’s lucky, because sometimes people get hurt.”
Court rulings use the n-word to describe how professors use the n-word in discussions of historical racism, but that does not mean that those judges are using the n-word to describe black people. For example, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a professor who used the word in Hardy v. Jefferson Community College to discuss how racists used the word to degrade black people. The appeals court found that the First Amendment protected the professor’s use of the n-word in a classroom discussion, and the court (unlike this blog post) used the full word “n–r” without any dashes. See Hardy v. Jefferson Community College, 260 F.3d 671 (6th Cir. 2001).
Courts also use the n-word, in full, in the bound volumes of the Federal Reporter, in court rulings describing how supervisors allegedly taunted their subordinates by calling them the n-word, in violation of laws prohibiting racial harassment in the workplace. Judges’ recounting the word’s usage, without bleeping it out, does not amount to endorsing the n-word or using it to describe black people.
Courts also have specifically ruled that repeating someone else’s use of the N word is very different than using it oneself. In Savage v. State of Maryland (2018), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals quashed a lawsuit by a black employee over an official’s quoting other people’s repeated use of the word “nigga.” The court emphasized that quoting someone else’s use of the N word is very different than using it oneself to degrade black people. Thus, it ruled, the black employee could not reasonably have perceived himself to have been racially harassed by it.
Given the current political and social climate, it was unwise for Schnatter to even reference Colonel Sanders’s use of the n-word, but it was not racist. It was simply a gaffe. The universities he generously contributed to should not have condemned him for this gaffe, and they showed a disturbing lack of gratitude in doing so.
If recounting someone else’s unfortunate use of the n-word were deemed to be using it to describe black people, we would have to ban the study of classic books like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. That would be a great loss to literature and the First Amendment.
Punishing people merely for describing the offensive words used by others is extreme — so extreme that it echoes the rigid blasphemy rules of primitive societies lampooned in Monte Python’s The Life of Brian, where a man is stoned for quoting the blasphemous utterance of another, even though he disapproved of it.