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Gary Younge
US grapples with its most hated word

As part of the project, students aged 12 and 13 were given a chapter from the book, Nigger: the Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by the black Harvard professor Randall Kennedy.

The next day when the calls started coming in to the school and the issue became a subject on local radio, Ms Schumacher proved just how troublesome a word it can be.

Parents and other teachers objected, school officials discussed whether Ms Schumacher should be disciplined but she apologised and they decided not to proceed.

Prof Kennedy, whose book came out in paperback earlier this week, jumped to her defence.

"The teacher did not show bad judgment, she displayed an adventurousness that should be applauded, not discouraged," he said.

It is difficult to think of a single word that has perpetuated as much controversy as the "N-word" in America.

Last Saturday, the basketball coach of Western New Mexico university was fired after six black players quit his team when he used the word to chastise them.

Joe Mandragon ordered all the white and Hispanic players off the team bus after a recent game and then, according to one player, told the black players: "You are all acting like niggers. It's Martin Luther King day and he wouldn't like you guys to be acting like that."

In Boston, one local newspaper banned the title of a play due to start next month called No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs while other publications were considering whether to print its name. The Boston Metro ran the title in its advertising using blanks and asterisks.

On Tuesday, Santa Clara county, California, voted unanimously "in spirit and concept" to denounce the use of the word following a campaign by local black activists who would like to see it banned.

The county, where black people form only 2.8% of the population, had to postpone final approval of the resolution because it could not decide whether to include the word in the resolution's text.

It "carries more violence to it than any other ethnic slur we know", said Lessie James, who campaigned for the resolution and believes the word should be included.

"It is a hate crime. The use of the word is hate," he said.

Efforts to ban the word in the past have run up against legal problems as an infringement of the freedom of speech.

In 1998, a local councillor in Baltimore failed in his bid to ban the use of city money to buy reference books - including dictionaries - that contain racial slurs.

But last year, Baltimore passed a resolution urging "people of all colours to refrain from using the word ... in anger or camaraderie".

Debate over the use of the word has intensified since the publication of Professor Kennedy's book last year.

It is further complicated by the fact that while it is generally recognised as a slur when spoken by whites it is increasingly used among younger black Americans.

A sign of the generational divide is that Bill Cosby refuses to use it while his fellow comedian Chris Rock has devoted an entire sketch to the use of it.

"The word is a bit like fire," said Patricia Williams, a black professor at Columbia law school, at the time of the release of Prof Kennedy's book.

"You can warm your hands with the kind of upside down camaraderie that it gives, or you can burn a cross with it... Seeing it floating abstractly on a bookshelf in a world that is still as polarised as ours makes me cringe."

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