Recently many political commentators seem to be disturbed by what they perceive to be an increasing use of racial code words in the national political arena, after Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich referred to President Obama as “the food stamp president.”
Many, like Salon’s Joan Walsh, thought the language about public assistance, an image that has long been wrongly synonymous with African Americans, was strategically used to invoke a racist sentiment about black reliance on government sponsored programs. Gingrich vehemently denies the charge.
Obama in particular has been the target of many of these campaigns that don’t outwardly want to mention race, but want to communicate that he is an “elite other.” Whether it’s using the word “uppity,” “articulate,” “drinking forties” or “foreigner” these phrases invoke racial “code words,” or language that appears to be neutral on the surface, but discreetly racist.
From the usage of “states rights” starting in the nineteenth century to the recent “Joe Six Pack,” white men and women have generally been at the center of the debate about the usage of coded language. However, African Americans have not been above using racial code words either, though you’re less likely to hear about it. Politic365 spoke with two leading professors in black politics about African Americans’ use of racial code words.
A few weeks ago, Black republican candidate Herman Cain declared that he’s was black, not African-American. “I don’t use African-American because I’m American. I’m Black and I’m conservative. Most of the ancestors that I can trace were born here in the United States of America. And then it goes back to slavery. And I’m sure my ancestors go all the way back to Africa, but I feel more of an affinity for America…”
While he was derided by many for using incendiary rhetoric to target white voters, and distinguish himself from “regular African Americans,” the conversation was focused on his ideas of “blackness” rather than the idea of code language.
“People become desensitized when African Americans are using these words against each other or even in some friendly terminology against each other,” says political science professor Ange-Marie Hancock of the University of California-Davis. However, the dynamic is often changed by who is speaking these words.
“Racial code words send different messages to different audiences. When we talk about Newt Gingrich using it versus Cornell West versus [Henry Louis] Gates using it. It communicates very differently to audiences. For Newt Gingrich or [Congressman] Lynn Westmoreland to call Obama uppity it means not our kind of black person, he’s not someone we can control, he might stand up against us.”
However, she points out that while “uppity” is a phrase that outrages many blacks when used in a pejorative way against the Obama family, his seemingly “perfect” nuclear family is exactly the type that may be referred to as “uppity” or “bourgie” inside of the black community.
In fact, it’s this very language- like many racial code words- that start in the black community and becomes co-opted by folks in the mainstream later on.
“There was this debate in the civil rights community among traditional leaders, is he really one of us, can we trust him, is he real? And that’s racial code word for do you do blackness like we do? There were a lot of questions whether Obama was real,” says Hancock who is releasing a book, Beyond the Oppression Olympics: A Politics of Solidarity for the 21st Century, this fall.
University of Chicago professor Michael Dawson believes that overall African Americans use less code language, but points out that it still exists. “The use of code words is generally unproductive because it’s hiding a conversation we should be having about race, or in the case of the black community, typically race, class, and generation. So we use code words instead of having a discussion about this.”
He remembers former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, one of the first black mayors in the country. Attempting to appeal to his majority black urban constituency he was constantly referring to “suburban interests” which was code word for “white” interests. Though he was later criticized for it, the strategy worked for him because it appealed to his constituency in the seventies.
There are also several examples of code words being used in twenty first century elections. For example racial code language was used in the fight for Newark’s mayoral race between long-time incumbent mayor Sharpe James and Cory Booker.
James called Booker “White,” “a Republican” and other things to imply that he was an over-educated outsider, with suspicious roots rather than a native resident.
In a Congressional race in Georgia, we also saw coded language used in the race between Denise Majette and Cynthia McKinney. Majette, as Hancock notes, depicted herself as an upstanding “proper” black woman and McKinney as more of a rogue character. “There was a very clear effort by the Majette campaign to paint McKinney as an loud, angry, black woman. And that was not the kind of black woman that you wanted to be in Congress.”
Yet Dawson, who will release Fragmented Rainbow: Race and Civil Society notes that these codes are not always negative, and sometimes plays into ideas about class and generation. He points to a recent city council election in Chicago, where the term “hip-hop politician” was being used in both negative and positive ways to talk about having roots in the community, and then in other ways to describe someone who is not as politically savvy, with more working class sensibilities.
In the future, Hancock believes we’ll see more code language inside the black community, particularly as we see Africans and Caribbeans enter more electoral politics, though she believes it will be at the local rather than the state or national level. “There’s still few enough of us at state or the national level that Africans have to close ranks if they want to have African Americans in senate positions or governor positions.”
Dawson believes the 2012 election is going to be so “racially brutal” that the black community will most likely have to focus on racist tactics and language by whites that intra-racial squabbles will have to be put on hold.
“The conversations will die down as we get closer to the election. We’ll see such a strong increase in racist appeal in such of code words…I think they’ll be less concerns about these debates within the black community and much more concern about what kind of racism is being fanned up as part of the campaigns.”