The Racist Politics of the English Language
How we went from “racist” to “racially tinged.”
November 26, 2018
Nov 26, 2018
7 Min read time
How we went from “racist” to “racially tinged.”
In a post-election analysis, New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns described Corey Stewart, the Confederate-sympathizing Virginia Senate candidate, as a “Trump-style racial provocateur.” This was only one of hundreds of recent examples of journalists employing what Adam Serwer has called “a ludicrous and expanding menu of complex euphemisms for describing racist behavior.”
The media’s use of “racially tinged” telegraphs that racism is normal, non-pathological, and within the range of mainstream political disagreement.
An October 22 headline in the New York Times claimed that “Trump and G.O.P. Candidates Escalate Race and Fear as Election Ploys.” How exactly does one “escalate race”? The article didn’t say, although it did note that “Mr. Trump and other Republicans . . . have attacked minority candidates in nakedly racial terms.” A Washington Post article by Matt Viser on how Republicans were “stoking racial animosity” used the word “racism” twice. But Viser also twice used “racially tinged,” employed the phrase “race-based,” and modified the word “racial” in more ways than I thought possible, speaking of “racial insults,” “racial undercurrents,” “racial animosity,” “racial fringes,” “racial attacks,” “racial connotations,” and “racial fears.”
Why the semantic somersaults when it comes to race? We never hear anti-Semitic rhetoric described as “religiously tinged,” and although the Boston Globe once referred to Trump’s “gender-tinged attack on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton” during the spring of 2016, it was nearly alone in doing so. Imagine if, after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape became public, the press had referred to Trump’s “gender-tinged” comments or claimed that he had “escalated” gender or that he was a “gender provocateur”? Such phrases turn oppression into a neutral condition. “Gender-tinged,” for example, suggests the infusion of gender into an issue but ignores the question of power—in Trumpian terms, of who grabs whom.
The expressions “racially tinged” and “racially charged” emerged during the modern civil rights movement. Newspaper databases show the same pattern as Google Ngrams: regular use began in the 1950s and ’60s, increased in the late twentieth century, and has been rampant since 2010. (“Racially provocative” also skyrocketed in the 2010s.) Historian Barbara J. Fields has written that the substitution of “race” for “racism” “transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of an object.” More than twenty-five years ago, Fields observed that “the neutral shibboleths of difference and diversity” had replaced terms such as “slavery, injustice, oppression, and exploitation.” Fields noted that such language enhanced “the authority and prestige of race,” a phrase given meaning via the creation of hierarchies of power. The scientifically incoherent concept of “race” becomes real through such speech acts, which serve to stabilize “race” as a reality rather than denaturalize it as a social construction.
Something similar is at work in the use of euphemisms which suggest that race is a fact—something that can be highlighted in a neutral way—rather than an ideology, a tool of oppression. The language of “tinged” and “charged” suggests that race can be overemphasized and exaggerated, but elides the fact that any biological notion of race is a fiction, while racism is a very real language of power. Describing Trump and others in language that uses “race” as a neutral concept, whether or not intensified by “tinged” or “charged,” suggests that race can possess both positive and negative valences. This masks that, as history tells us, phrases described as “racially tinged” always involve assertions of race hierarchy, power, and privilege.
• • •
During the civil rights movement, most politicians abandoned explicitly racist appeals, insisting on ‘states’ rights’ when they meant ‘white rights’ and decrying ‘federal intervention’ when they meant ‘integration.’
A 1956 profile of Georgia senator Herman Talmadge called him “an advocate of ‘White Supremacy’” and noted that “he makes no bones about this.” Talmadge and his southern white colleagues did not shy away from racist language. For example, at the 1948 breakaway States’ Rights Democrats (aka Dixiecrats) convention, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond claimed, “There’s not enough troops in the army, to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” There was nothing “racially tinged” about Thurmond’s comments. He saw no need to hide his racism, and journalists, accordingly, saw no need to describe it in euphemistic terms. When Thurmond filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act, an article about it in the San Rafael Independent Journal was surrounded by pieces with the headlines “Racists Hit Rights Bill as ‘Vicious’” and “Racists Rally in Nashville.” These straightforward descriptions may shock modern readers accustomed to the imprecise language of “racial provocateurs” and “nakedly racial” actions.
Over the course of the civil rights movement, most politicians, however, abandoned explicitly racist appeals. As the Washington Post observed in 1965, a “new breed of legislators” was replacing the “old-style segregationist politician.” As one columnist noted in the Boston Globe that year, “There is the voice of the segregationist politician who cries for ‘states’ rights’ but means white rights and decries ‘Federal intervention’ when it means integrating the schools.” These politicians developed a new style of rhetoric, notoriously summed up by Republican operative Lee Atwater in 1981:
You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. . . . ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’
Soon journalists began to mirror the “color-blind” language being adopted by white-power activists. One of the best examples of the journalistic shift can be seen in 1957, the same year as Thurmond’s filibuster, when Little Rock’s Central High School became the site of the nation’s most iconic battle over school desegregation. In October of that year, many newspapers carried an Associated Press story about the “racially tinged” actions of a group called the “Segregationist League of Central High Mothers.” While not necessarily causal, this moment represents a hinge: opposition to the civil rights movement was increasingly described by journalists as “racially tinged” rather than “racist.” A 1963 article in the Baltimore Sun described the “racially tinged protests of some white parents.” In the same year, an article by Bruce M. Galphin in the New York Times explained that “the presence of a Negro juror . . . substantially reduces derogatory racial references in jury-room deliberations and racially tinged wisecracks from judges and lawyers.” What made the wisecracks “racially tinged” was that, in the year of the Birmingham Protests and the “I Have a Dream” speech, code words were beginning to replace straightforward descriptions of racist activities. The nadir of euphemism is surely a dead tie between the Associated Press’s 1964 description of “racially tinged explosions” which were set off “near the recently desegregated campus of the University of Alabama” and “across town near a Negro cafe”; and a 1953 Associated Press story that described the trial of two white men who kidnapped a black motorist and set him on fire as a “racially charged case.”
By the 1990s, however, when the use of such expressions began to increase dramatically, their application was less as euphemism than as matter-of-fact description of forms of racism that had become normalized as essentially non-pathological and within the range of mainstream political disagreement. Sandy Grady’s article on Steve Forbes’s 1996 presidential campaign, for example, explained that the multimillionaire could afford “tough pros, including Carter Wrenn, who devised racially tinged ads for Sen. Jesse Helms.”
Given this historical context, what on the left has been so often treated as Trump’s radical departure from political norms comes into focus as the terminal outcome of mainstreaming the color-blind language of post–civil rights white supremacy. By extension, the cure cannot be more of the same: by amplifying this language of “racially tinged” and its kin, the media replicates the very same language of indirection that was invented by right ideologues to make it difficult to speak accurately of racial oppression. Color-blind and euphemistic coverage not only masks the danger of racism, it reinforces it. If this language was harmful during the era of “Massive Resistance” to the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, it is no less so in the age of Trump, when subtle dog whistles have been replaced with overt appeals.
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November 26, 2018
7 Min read time