WASHINGTON - It was a single word, just six letters long, but one that had not been spoken by an American president in public for generations.
US President Barack Obama invoked the word "nigger" in a podcast interview released on Monday to drive home his point that slavery still "casts a long shadow" on American life. But he touched a raw nerve in a country struggling to confront racism and hatred days after nine black parishioners were killed in a South Carolina church.
"We're not cured of it," Mr Obama said of racism during an interview for a WTF With Marc Maron podcast. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not."
We're not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.
President Obama, speaking about racism during an interview
For part of the hour-long conversation with Mr Maron, a writer, director and comedian who produces regular podcasts of interviews with celebrities, the first black US president patiently explained that race relations had improved in his lifetime.
But in also acknowledging that racism was still deeply embedded in the United States as a "part of our DNA", he turned to a racially fraught word. His use of it quickly became the focus in the US of commentary online and on TV news channels.
Mr Josh Earnest, the President's Press Secretary, said Mr Obama had planned to use the word when he sat down with Mr Maron, who records his popular podcast from his garage in Southern California. But Mr Earnest said Mr Obama was not surprised by the reaction to a word that has long been a racial slur.
Mr Marc Morial, president of the civil rights organisation Urban League, condemned the President's use of the term, calling it a "disparaging, hateful" word that should never be uttered, even by artists or poets who say they are seeking to change a word of hate into one of love. Nor should it be used, he insisted, by presidents trying to teach a nation a lesson.
Mr Morial praised Mr Obama for his willingness to talk about racism, and said he did not think the President intended to offend.
For a nation in mourning over the killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the President's use of the word echoed loudly. And after a year of high-profile, fatal confrontations between the police and African-Americans, Mr Obama's comment seemed designed as an exclamation point on a topic he turns to frequently.
"I think he's being provocative," said author and poet Ishmael Reed, who has written on the African-American experience. "He's got a short time to be President. You have to raise the decibels in order to be heard."
Mr Obama has been more open about the issue of race during his second term, in part because of incidents that have forced Americans to confront the depth of anger and frustration among some blacks, especially about their treatment by the police.
Mr Earnest called Mr Obama's use of the word "notable", even provocative. But he said the President had used the term to make an argument "that is familiar to those who have been listening".
Mr Obama will have another opportunity to be heard on Friday, when he delivers the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor at Emanuel AME Church, who was among the nine people killed.
NEW YORK TIMES