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Unless It’s the N-Word, It’s Probably Not ‘Like the N-Word’

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Fredo Corleone, as depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, is incompetent, envious, and ultimately traitorous with fatal results. His father leads a crime syndicate, his older brother is the virile and hot-tempered heir apparent, and his younger brother is the cunning and effective one who takes over, leaving Fredo — the black-sheep middle brother — to run the others’ errands and wallow in his own inadequacy. He’s an unflattering point of comparison for anyone. For CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the sting of being called “Fredo” is likely sharpened by its precise familial implications: His father is former New York governor Mario Cuomo, and his older brother is current governor Andrew Cuomo. There’s some disagreement over whether it’s a known ethnic slur, as Cuomo and CNN both claimed after a stranger used it against the 49-year-old anchor on Monday. Either way, equating a real-life Italian-American with a reviled one from popular culture courts bigotry, nakedly or tangentially. Cuomo was justified in taking offense — if not in threatening his injurer with violence.

Where Cuomo truly got derailed was in his claim that “Fredo” is “like the ‘N-word’ for us [Italian-Americans].” It’s worth noting up front that few words are actually like “n- - - - -.” Its etymology traces to when it was used to categorize enslaved black people and later expanded in its derogatory implications when racists maintained it as a pejorative after less-coarse terminology — “colored,” “Afro-American,” “black” — came into fashion. It survived primarily to degrade a people whose oppression in the U.S. was nigh unparalleled. Its modern uses include as a term of intraracial endearment, even as it heralds bigotry and possibly even violence when deployed interracially. This remains confusing for some who claim not to understand why it’s only acceptable for black people to say it. More confusing, perhaps, should be why so many have trouble applying basic standards of interpersonal conduct — like avoiding offensive words when referencing people you aren’t on intimate personal or communal terms with — to black people.

told a state representative in an angry voice-mail in 2016. Being called a “racist,” LePage added, “it’s like calling a black man the N-word or a woman the C-word. It just absolutely knocked me off my feet.” The comparison echoes a broader tendency, particularly among conservatives, to suggest that being called racist is worse than racism itself. “One of the problems is, why it’s hard to have a conversation, there is nothing worse than being called a racist,” Kieran Lalor, a New York state assemblyman, told Fox News last year. “There is nothing worse for your career, there’s nothing worse for you as a person.”

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