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Despite Mushnick’s controversial use of racial slur, ‘there are times when the word deserves to be published’

In the course of a half-hour interview, New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick is funny, charming and defiant, while insisting many have twisted and misunderstood one line in a column last week that made national headlines.

His use of the n-word in a story.

Mushnick’s in-your-face suggestion that the Brooklyn Nets consider renaming themselves the “New York N——” or a phrase including the b-word springs from his longtime criticism of the fact that rapper Jay-Z, who uses both terms in his music, is a part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

But the phrase has prompted an explosion of criticism accusing Mushnick of lazy journalism and outright racism, as everyone from MTV.com to New York Magazine and the National Association of Black Journalists called him out on his choice of words.

The columnist, however, remained unapologetic about using the term.

“I’ve been condemning it’s return, it’s mainstreaming…I was raised in a household that never heard the word,” said the columnist of his decision to deploy the epithet himself. “It was clearly a matter of pointed sarcasm. But the most difficult thing to defend in our business is condemnation as an anti-black racist.”

Still, I think there’s a big difference between quoting someone else’s use of such a jarring racial epithet and a columnist using the word himself, especially in a sarcastic line stuck inside a column largely focused on other topics.

Much as the columnist says he hates the term and wants to constantly point out the Nets’ association with a man who he feels is mainstreaming the word, Mushnick does a bit of that himself by tossing off the word so casually.

The controversial section, falling more than 20 paragraphs into his May 4 column, asserted: “As long as the Nets are allowing Jay-Z to call their marketing shots— what a shock that he chose black and white as the new team colors to stress, as the Nets explained, their new ‘urban’ home— why not have him apply the full Jay-Z treatment?

“Why the Brooklyn Nets when they can be the New York N——s? The cheerleaders could be the Brooklyn B—-hes or Hoes. Team logo? A 9 mm with hollow-tip shell casings strewn beneath. Wanna be Jay-Z hip? Then go all the way!”

Mushnick blames coverage on the Internet and in rival publications such as the New York Daily News for much of the criticism he’s received.

“People took this second hand,” he said. “How do I control what people get second hand and third hand and run with it? Nobody who reads me regularly thinks I’m a racist. This is more about the Internet than me.”

But such comments also reveal another mistake: Thinking that someone has to be racist to say something racially insulting or rooted in prejudice.

As I have written many times before, prejudice is often seductive and appealing; it can explain the world in deceptively simple terms. And those who fail to respect the complexities of these discussions are even more likely to make the kinds of mistakes that bring furor and condemnation.

Mushnick also writes for a newspaper which has taken criticism in the past for publishing racially insensitive material – notably a 2009 cartoon showing police shooting a monkey credited with writing national health care legislation championed by Democrats. Critics said the cartoon was a veiled, insulting depiction of the legislation’s most prominent advocate, African-American President Barack Obama.

The columnist insists he takes marching orders from no one and editors didn’t red flag his use of the n-word because he rails against Jay-Z on this issue often.

But the Internet also brings lots of readers to his columns who may not see all or even most of what he writes. Readers shouldn’t need to know the context of other columns to understand what is said in each one.

And since so many people have taken offense at the usage, it seems obvious there was likely a more effective way to make the same point.

But as someone who has been called that word more than once in my life, I still have to disagree with well-meaning groups such as the New York Association of Black Journalists, whose president demanded assurances “this vile word will never appear in this publication again.”

I think there are times when the word deserves to be published in its full, un-dashed, un-euphemized form, if only to remind us of its ugly power.

I once wrote a story about an episode of a TV show where the word was used close to 70 times in a searching exploration of such issues. Back then, I wrote the word out one time in my story; it seemed beyond silly to devote an expansive story to such a subject and never say, even once, exactly what you’re talking about.

There is a balance between respecting the ugliness of the word and ensuring that columnists and others have the ability to fully express themselves and explore ideas about race, oppression and society.

Blanket bans on words needlessly handcuff writers to police the actions of a few who cross the line.

I grew up in a neighborhood where black people used that word to refer to other black people, both in affection and anger. Untangling that mass of contradiction, which Jay-Z reflects and amplifies in his own music, requires more than a sarcastic comment tucked inside one section of a column.

Defiant as Mushnick remains, I left our conversation hoping he might have learned that lesson at least.

Because, what good is it to deliver a lesson about the danger of mainstreaming one of the worst racial epithets in America, if your language angers everyone so much they never get the message?

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