‘A Word That Has Blood Dripping Off It’: How A White Lawmaker’s Slur Reverberated In Maryland

Before the vote, Maryland Del. Charles E. Sydnor III had planned to rise to explain why he would cast a ballot to censure his colleague, a fellow Democrat who began her state legislative career with him five years ago.

But he never moved. He said he couldn’t.

“As much as I wanted to get it into the record, I realized I might not be able to get through everything. . . . I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” said Sydnor (Baltimore County), whose intent was to tell his colleagues about the racism his grandparents endured in Virginia and the racial slurs that were hurled at him growing up in Maryland.

Sydnor was one of 137 members of the House of Delegates who, on the final day of Black History Month, took the rare action of censuring Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (Harford) for conduct that “brought dishonor to the entire General Assembly of Maryland.”

The revelation Monday that Lisanti, a white lawmaker, had described an area of Prince George’s County as a “n----- district,” sent feelings of hurt, shock, anger and disgust through the State House, across Maryland and into Prince George’s, a community long hailed as a mecca of the black middle class.

Suddenly, Sydnor said, he couldn’t help but wonder if Lisanti saw him as the spouse, father, lawmaker and lawyer he is — “or as that slur which she used.”

“It is the most notorious racial-ethnic-group slur in the American language, and that is saying something because the American language is filled with slurs,” said Harvard Law professor Randall L. Kennedy.

“It is a word that has blood dripping off it,” said Kennedy, author of “N-----: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” “And people have to be attentive to that.”

Lisanti said in a statement Tuesday that she was “sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth.” Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) said he was there when she said the word.

But appearing before reporters after Thursday’s censure, Lisanti further angered many of her colleagues by appearing to deny using the word, saying that there was no “independent verification” to prove that she said it.

In Prince George’s, which has a long, painful history of racism that stems back to slavery and continued through a century of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks addressed the incident at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, without mentioning Lisanti’s name.

“I know who we are as Prince Georgians, and I know we would not yield to people who are ignorant or unenlightened,” Alsobrooks (D) told the dozens of people who gathered at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale. “The future is bright here in Prince George’s.”

The county of more than 900,000 residents transformed over the past three decades from a predominantly white, blue-collar farming community to an enclave of black prosperity. As black residents from the District and elsewhere moved to the county, often to expansive new homes in subdivisions built on the sites of former plantations, many white residents left.

Prince George’s was the biggest slave-owning county in Maryland, which did not free slaves until more than a year after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. According to census records, there were more enslaved black people living in Prince George’s in 1860 than there were whites. That census listed 12,479 slaves, 1,205 free blacks and 9,650 whites living in Prince George’s. Five of at least 40 black people who were lynched in Maryland were killed in Prince George’s, according to the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.

“This ain’t new — Maryland was an egregious slave state and Prince George’s was one of the last school systems in it to desegregate,” said Theresa Dudley, a 28-year resident who is president of the Prince George’s County teachers union. “Our children are the descendants of slaves. How is the General Assembly going to make sure it takes care of them?”

Alvin Thornton, a Prince George’s Country resident and a former professor of political science at Howard University who co-authored a book about the county’s history, said Lisanti associating the racial epithet with Prince George’s “means the perception of people being n----- is not a function of their economic status and academic achievement, regardless of that, you are still a n-----.”

He called Lisanti’s slur of Prince George’s part of the “normalization of that kind of commentary about black people, people of color,” adding that President Trump has referred to African nations as “shithole countries,” while Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, last month acknowledged long-ago dressing in blackface.

As long as racism exists, the word can never lose its sting, said Jabari Asim, author of “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why.” He traces the origin of the racial epithet to the arrival of 20 black captives to the British colonies 400 years ago.

It was always meant to demean black people. And it was always accompanied by violence — physical, legislative or societal — imposed by the delusion of white supremacy, Asim said. In 2019, he added, the meaning of the slur revolves around “questions of equal access” for black people and whether they are unfit for public resources and power.

When people use the term, they know exactly what kind of pain it inflicts, he said. When it’s a public official  such as Benjamin Tillman, a 19th-century U.S. senator from South Carolina who invoked the slur against black Americans to argue against civil rights — the harm is magnified.

“We’ve been having this conversation for 400 years,” said Asim, a literature professor at Emerson College. “We should be less forgiving in situations involving public officials. The level of expectation should be set to a higher standard for modeling civil discourse for the rest of us.”

At a budget hearing in Prince George’s on Tuesday, school board member Belinda Queen stepped out of the room for a few minutes to talk with students studying in an after-school program.

They asked her about the slur and how she felt that a fellow Democrat had used it.

“As a Democrat, I find it disrespectful,” Queen said she told them. “But as a human being, I also find it disrespectful.”

Tony Lee, pastor of Community of Hope AME Church in Hillcrest Heights, said he thinks that there could be room for personal redemption for Lisanti, who has refused calls to step down. He said it should not happen while she is in office.

“Everyone can change,” Lee said. “But that doesn’t mean she should be representing the state.”

Her use of the epithet calls into question her ability to create fair policies for Prince Georgians, and for black residents in her district, Lee said. Her comments comparing the use of the racial slur to a curse word or taking the Lord’s name in vain reflected, to the pastor, a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word.

Lee laughed when asked whether he would address Lisanti’s use of the slur with his congregation Sunday.

“There is so much to talk about,” he said, adding that he would have to choose between Lisanti, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s hearing on Capitol Hill and the allegations against musician R. Kelly. “It’s all part of a larger conversation about where we are in the United States right now.”

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