In President Obama's interview with comedian Marc Maron for Maron's WTF podcast, which was posted Monday, Obama made a vague but worthwhile point about racism in America: Some kinds of explicit racism might be considered bad manners now, but that doesn't mean underlying problems have been addressed:
Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of not being polite to say 'ni**er' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 or 300 years prior.
This statement can be interpreted as a critique of the media, as much as anything. There's much more interest in covering discrete incidents of outright racism than there is in covering subtler but still influential ways that racial bias shapes society. Donald Sterling got pushed out as owner of the LA Clippers for telling his girlfriend not to bring black men to games, not for his history of lawsuits over racist housing practices.
So how did the media respond to Obama's critique? By leading with his use of the n-word:
Of course, Obama isn't the first president to use the word. Other presidents have used it, not to criticize racism but to, well, be racist. Only a few years before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the biggest civil rights laws in American history, he routinely described an earlier civil rights bill as "the ni**er bill." Harry Truman referred to pioneering black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell as "that damned ni**er preacher." (This column by Randall Kennedy, who literally wrote the book on the subject, goes into much more detail about the history of the word.)
But because Obama used it after it's become impolite, people are pouncing on it — and doing exactly what Obama said the problem was: focusing on the expressions of racism that aren't considered polite anymore, rather than the ones that are.
It's just plain easier to write about violations of social norms than it is to point out the problems hidden within those norms.