When Emory Professor of Law Paul J. Zwier II said the N-word while discussing the 1967 case of Fisher v. Carrousel Motor Hotel, Inc., he crossed a line. Zwier did not just say “the N-word,” instead, he used the derogatory term, in its entirety, before the whole class. Since then, the Emory community has unified against such racial insensitivity, setting a strong example for the rest of American universities, and the country as a whole, to follow.
Zwier’s remark was inappropriate given the context of the case being examined: a black customer was told by an employee at a Texas buffet, who knocked a plate out of his hand, that a “Negro could not be served.” It was also extremely unbecoming of a tenured professor at a university that is built upon a foundation of diversity and openness.
The welcoming and inclusive atmosphere at our university does not excuse any single person from making comments, intentional or accidental, that disparage or otherwise harm individuals here at Emory. Though I do not believe these would have been necessary actions, students at all levels, of all backgrounds, could have demanded Zwier’s immediate resignation and called for urgent meetings among administrators and student leaders to combat this type of language. Instead, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), as well as law faculty, University President Claire E. Sterk, and Zwier himself decided to hold a “unity rally” in front of the law school. This rally, meant to demonstrate intolerance for use of the N-word “in any circumstances,” according to BLSA President Wrenica Archibald (16C, 19L), proves the maturity of the Emory community in confronting these challenges.
More importantly, though, the rally is an example that needs to be followed by other schools and institutions in the United States if we are to eliminate the use of a word that represents the worst of our country’s long, painful history of racial injustice.
In light of former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman’s allegation that a tape exists of President Donald J. Trump using the N-word when he was on set for the “The Apprentice,” national conversation needs to resume about how we treat use of this word, regardless of if Trump really said it. It is an offensive term coming from someone with such influence, and especially from a white person. It harkens back to the racism that, in many ways, is rooted in American culture and government, and it helps to reinvigorate the white supremacist and far right groups in our country.
The N-word itself has become a prominent word in parts of popular culture. In rap music, it is more readily accepted because of the backgrounds and races of the rappers using it. In television and movies, it provides a more accurate depiction of the times when the word was common parlance. The N-word has found a place in narratives and art that, while heard and read by many, do not seem to pose a threat to the issue of racism. In fact, it can be constructive and informative in cases such as movies like Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
These cases do not include the word’s use in schools and classrooms. And the N-word should not and must not permeate government offices and meetings, or potentially the highest office in the land.
These are the conversations that must continue on college campuses like Emory. Offices of equity and inclusion (or similar branches with different names) at all universities need to re-evaluate the ways they grapple with the N-word when it is brought to the foreground by the wrong people at the wrong times. Emory’s standing as such a diverse, accepting institution makes its swift and considerate response so appropriate. I’m not certain that this reality of equality will prevail in schools that are not as diverse, or that may even have a history of racial tension. They would also have to deal with the outcry and backlash if a similar situation were to arise there. Zwier’s use of the N-word was so shocking not only because he has a long history of teaching, but also because, as a white man teaching about a racial discrimination case in a law school, he should know better.
Along with the unity rally, the opening of an investigation and Zwier’s temporary suspension from teaching were the correct procedures followed by the administration in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Now, with the investigation concluded, Zwier is taking the necessary steps to regain his reputation and the trust of the community.
Zwier and Emory law students and faculty have set a strong example through their unified response. Now, the hope is that American academia, and the public at-large, can be just as effective and empowering as Emory has been in showing the N-word the door.
Jacob Busch (22C) is from Brookhaven, Ga.