It's so much easier to talk about race in this country through tangents than it is to address the festering, underlying problem.

So we debate President Barack Obama's very intentional use in a podcast interview of the harshest slur leveled against blacks, hardly ever uttered in polite company. Should he have said it? Should it be bleeped? Language matters, but you must attend to Obama's whole sentence to understand what he feels we need to talk about: "The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. We're not cured of it . . . And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say [expletive] in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not."

Obama's decision to use the N-word is a wake-up call, not the discussion topic. We're pointedly not using it here because we want to have a conversation about race, not word usage.

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South Carolina's flying of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds will remain an important issue in that state until it's actually brought down, a process Gov. Nikki Haley began in earnest Monday. But for the rest of the nation, it was a proxy that allowed us to avoid the problematic race relations shared by each of the other 49.

Gun control, violence in entertainment, and mental illness are all serious issues that may be related to the slaughter last week of nine innocents in a Charleston church by Dylann Roof, but they shouldn't be at the top of the agenda.

We'll do anything to avoid an open, painful exchange on the fact that the nation continues to be scarred and troubled, even hateful and deadly, because millions of black people were used as slaves and dealt with as subhumans for 200 years. And because long after slavery ended, black people were denied proper education, housing, freedom, power and opportunity. Sometimes they still are, not just in the old outposts of the Confederacy which are often far more advanced in their integration efforts than Northern metropolises and suburbs like Long Island. Almost no one is a mass murderer fueled by race hate. Most of us don't own Confederate flags or use the N-word. That, as Obama was trying to point out, doesn't mean race and racism are not problems for us.

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Our schools are too often segregated and wildly varying in quality, separate but unequal. That's largely because our neighborhoods are too often segregated. Income disparity is often the culprit, and while that's a real problem stemming from the black experience in America, it is not the only problem. Black people with money often don't feel welcome, because they aren't welcome, in white neighborhoods.

The core problems in our black communities exist because of the horrifying roots of the black journey in this nation. Absent a time machine, there's nothing we can do to undo our slavery heritage.

But the events in Charleston teach us two lessons -- if we will listen. The casual acceptability of racism is a moral failing that can become a deadly error. And black and white people of this nation can unite to overcome pain and loss, and together, everything that separates us.

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Let's put those lessons first.