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raceAhead: Call Racism By It’s Name

Racism Typed on Vintage TypewriterRacism Typed on Vintage Typewriter
There's a reason why we hesitate to call something racist in modern life.Nora Carol Photography—Getty Images

When it comes to racism, it’s time to call it what it is.

This is the sharp observation delivered by Lawrence B. Glickman, an author and professor of American Studies at Cornell University, who has taken the time to chronicle the increasingly tortured ways journalists, pundits, and commentators avoid calling something “racist.”

Here’s one example: “A Washington Post article by Matt Viser on how Republicans were ‘stoking racial animosity’ used the word ‘racism’ twice,” he notes. “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.’”

The phrasing is cumbersome, at best.

“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’?”

So, why the rhetorical gymnastics about race?

The answer comes partly from politics. As public discussions of racist ideas became more subtle, so did the attempts to describe it.

Glickman points out that it would be hard to call this speech from South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1948 “racially charged”: “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.” Thurman delivered these remarks at the 1948 States’ Rights Democrats convention, a short-lived, segregationist offshoot of the Democratic party more commonly known as the Dixiecrats.

In fact, it would be impossible to call it anything other than unabashedly racist, as all serious commentators did.

But during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, political figures began to cloak their segregationist ideas behind words and phrases that would often elude the racism detectors of an equity-seeking public. Eventually, there was a playbook. It was called the Southern Strategy, and it was clearly articulated by Lee Atwater, the cynical Republican campaign consultant who began his career at Thurmond’s knee, and who mastered the technique of appealing to racist voters without saying racist things:

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.”

See? It’s not hard. And it works. Glickman finds that ‘racially tinged’ and ‘racially charged’ can be found as descriptors in newspaper databases starting in the late 1950s, and have increased in usage over the years until they have become “rampant” go-to phrases.

This softening of the framing veils the ugliness of racism as 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,” he writes.

It also gives people who embrace racist policies and tactics a way to either pass unnoticed or indignantly wriggle away from any accusation of racism. Taken to its extreme, it extends a veneer of cool, which is how racial “provocateurs”—like failed Virginia Senate candidate (and white supremacist) Corey Stewart and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer—can end up sounding like swashbuckling outsiders to some, rather than the dangerous bigots they are.

Now we have the opportunity to correct the record, and Lee Atwater’s legacy, by speaking more clearly in our daily lives about the racist ideas that are buried behind the triggering catch-phrases of the day—things like “border wall,” “affirmative action,” “lowering the bar,” and “tough on crime.” (In Viser’s defense and occasionally my own, sometimes there are only so many ways you can describe something as racist in print.)

But to do that, we need to recognize these ideas when they appear and have the guts to call them by their name.

It’s not an easy task.

“The president’s overtly prejudiced remarks about religious and ethnic minorities, in a country where the accusation of racism is often regarded as morally equivalent to racial discrimination, poses a challenge for media outlets seeking to accurately represent the views of the president and his supporters without enraging either of them,” says The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer.

Journalist or not, the stakes are too high to flinch. Serwer’s answer is in the title of his piece. “Just say it’s racist.”

On Point

A black woman will lead the Harvard Crimson for the first timeKristine E. Guillaume will lead the storied Harvard newspaper, becoming the third black first-ever black woman president since its founding in 1873. (It’s a big step: Crimson has produced two presidents and a tech CEO, among many other notable white men.) But diversity has never been their strength. Guillaume, a junior majoring in literature, history and African-American studies, won her role after a grueling selection process, with a promise to create a more diverse and digitally savvy future for the organization. “If my being elected to the Crimson presidency as the first black woman affirms anyone’s sense of belonging at Harvard, then that will continue to affirm the work that I’m doing,” she says.New York Times

Workers want employers to weigh in on social issues
In the latest release of the Role of the Company Survey, an annual poll conducted by MetLife, 70% of respondents say that they expect their companies to address societal problems, up from 63% the year before. And values matter, too. Among employees who say their employers reflect their own stated values, 85% described themselves as loyal, and 54% said they’re willing to go well beyond their work’s scope, compared to 44% and 4%, respectively, of those who said their values and work aren’t aligned. By all means, send this piece to your CEO with a friendly note, and maybe your own personal values statement.
HR Dive

Theaters in the UK join forces to increase diversity behind the scenes
Some 90 venues, including the National Theatre, National Theatre Scotland and the Lloyd Webber Theatres have signed onto what is believed to be the largest initiative to remedy the lack of offstage diversity in UK history. The plan was published Tuesday by Bectu, the entertainment and media trade union, and makes twelve recommendations to attract and retain theater professionals of color. It’s an issue. London, for example, is 41% black, while research shows that some 93% of theater professionals are white. “When we walk into a theatre, not just on the stage, but when you walk into the administrative offices or backstage and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, you think that this is not for you. It is as simple as that,” says Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic in London.
The Guardian

Mississippi election update: A shake-up in the circuit courts
On Tuesday, two African American women, Faye Peterson and state Rep. Adrienne Wooten, won their bids to become circuit judges in Hinds County, Mississippi. It’s doubly historic. For the first time, all four circuit judges in the county will be black and three will be women. Hinds County is the most populous in the state and is nearly 70% black; the economy was originally based on income derived from plantations worked by enslaved black people. The county has also had the most lynchings of any in Mississippi. You can read more about the new judges’ plans for criminal justice reform here.
Clarion Ledger

 

The Woke Leader

Mississippi in my bones
Don’t miss this poignant essay from award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward, reflecting on the Mississippi of her youth, and her decision to raise her children in her home state. “My mother says we never starved, and this is true. I had it better than my grandparents and my mother did when they were young, but I remember hunger,” she says. But the hunger was also for bigger things, like the hope to shed the material poverty that “cleaves to generations, passes from grandmother to mother to child like a genetic trait.” The deft political analysis that comprises the middle of her essay provides the central tension in Mississippi, which still “insists…if you are poor or wanting, you’re to blame if you starve. That you deserve your poverty, your squalor, your suffering, and that you do not deserve help…’”  She’s home to be near extended family she loves and her children needs. “Yet every day I wonder at living in the kind of place that would have my children understand that they are perpetually less.”
The Atlantic

Three images, three icons, three perspectives
Harpers Bazaar asked Uzo Aduba, Katie Holmes, and Ieshia Evans to recreate three iconic photos that are emblematic of “defiant activism” captured by the act of a single woman—each one focused on either civil or women’s rights. In accompanying commentary, Roxane Gay, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Tamika D. Mallory, put the current state of the women’s movement into perspective. Some themes emerged. “The American feminist movement has historically ignored or excluded black and brown women,” says Mallory, a fact which has yet to be fully addressed. “Today mainstream feminism is at a crossroads. At a time when women are being activated in record numbers, we have the opportunity to reframe the conversation about women’s rights so that it centers all of our concerns—not just those that apply to white women.”
Harpers Bazaar

Ignorance is love
In a wonderful and surprising story, Lulu Wang explains how her entire Chinese family conspired to keep her beloved grandmother from learning that she had been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer. From the accidental discovery of the news—“It’s customary for doctors in China to give bad news to family members, rather than giving it directly to a patient”—to doctored health documents and more, Wang offers a poignant look at love, Chinese culture, family, the generational divide and the lies that bind. Don’t worry, I didn’t spoil anything.
This American Life

Quote

But beneath those often vile and racist tricks, was this incredible keen awareness of the heart of the American voter. How you reached them out with 10 point plans but with emotional appeals to their fear, to their resentment of elites, and Atwater as a southerner, really understood that stuff…So there’s really something there, and this southern sense of resentment at the northerners coming in here, telling us what to do. Lee got that and he understood the ways that that resentment in the words of his acolyte, Tucker Eskew, who is now a senior adviser to McCain-Palin, that resentment became the future of the Republican Party. And Democrats still don’t understand it.
Stefan Forbes, documentary creator of Boogie Man: The Life of Lee Atwater