Race and Profanity in a Portrait of Grief

On September 23rd, a source alerted me that the New York Times had posted Rakeyia Scott’s cellphone video of police officers shooting and killing her husband, Keith.

The officers yell repeatedly at Scott to “get out of the fucking car.”

After the shooting, Rakeyia Scott screamed, “He better not be fucking dead.”

As I’ve noticed over the years while documenting how the Times writes around profanity, a lot of the expletives the Times avoids come up around race: in stories about hip-hop, professional sports, and police shootings. (I’m getting all the data into a spreadsheet so I can back up this assertion.)

The Times seems compelled both to tell readers that people curse in these contexts and to frown upon it.

It’s as if profanity is like a sack dance or a bat flip, a classless flourish that the archetypal Times reader, who is presumably white, can take vicarious pleasure in without having to perform it himself.

Against that backdrop, allowing an ordinary black woman — a private citizen forced into the public eye by a violent act she could not prevent — to express unthinkable pain using language that has long been considered unprintable looked like a watershed moment.

Since then (and as of this writing), the verbatim transcript has been embedded into the video, and the accompanying article has the officers saying “‘drop the gun’ or some variation of it,” and Rakeyia Scott saying, “He better not be [expletive] dead.”

A search for “fucking” in the Times archive yields recent book excerpts and 19th-century scanning mistakes and Part 4 of that story about Dasani the Invisible Child, but nothing about the killing of Keith Scott.

No mention in public editor Liz Spayd’s recent column on stealth editing, either.

When can a reasonable person curse, if not in grief and despair?

Adapted from the September 30, 2016 installment of Eskin Premier, my email newsletter. Expletive avoidance is a recurring theme, but not the only one.

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