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raceAhead: Call Racism By It’s Name

November 29, 2018, 6:15 PM UTC

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.”

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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