Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Racial and Racist Code Words, Symbols, Stereotypes, & Myths

by Ron Powell

(This is a revision of a post which was first published on Open Salon in 2009.)

Code words, symbols, stereotypes, & myths are the means by which institutions and individuals transmit, maintain and reinforce racial prejudice and racial discrimination between groups and from generation to generation.                                                 
During the presidential campaign, in referring to Barack Obama, Kentucky Rep. Geoff Davis stated: “I’m going to tell you something: That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button.”  Yes, Rep. Geoff Davis—you couldn’t make this stuff up. 
I won’t go into a long historical dissertation of how the word “boy” has been employed.  Suffice to say that it was a signal to any “uppity” black during Jim Crow to not challenge the white power structure or suffer dire consequences.  The word was/is also a signal to whites reminding them of and reinforcing their role in maintaining the power structure.
I won't yield to the temptation of reciting a litany of what the code words, symbols, stereotypes, and myths are, becasuse, I believe, that most of us know what they are, or at least understand that they exist. This is about being able to talk openly about what we do in our lives, our daily discourse, to address those things that tear at the fabric of our society, and diminish the value and the quality of life for others. 
During one of his recent radio rants Rush Limbaugh said of President Obama's economic policies: "The objective is more food-stamp benefits. The objective is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation's wealth and return to it to the nation's, quote, 'rightful owners.' Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on." Clearly, Limbaugh is attempting to use the politics of racial fear to appeal to the lowest common denominator of racial anxiety in this country. The terms welfare, food stamps, and reparations are all CODE for "undeserving black people."
In politics, symbols matter, and in a nation with a history of racialized chattel slavery, government sanctioned discrimination, and an anti-black racialist and racist culture, political symbols of racial progress matter tremendously.
 It is in this context where the effusive praise of the ascendancy of Senator Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States must be understood. By winning, Senator Obama stands as a potent symbol of progress for the American experiment with democracy that continues to be plagued by its racial past that is still very much a part of its present.
To equate the symbolic dimension of Barack Obama’s becoming president with the substantive standing and status of all black people, or of all racial minorities, in American political, social, economic, and cultural life is to commit a serious error.
When we critically examine this moment in American political and social development, we should pause in light of several deep and disturbing trends that have become prominent since the decline of the Black Freedom struggles of the 1960s.  Since Barack Obama has won and  assumed the office of President, we are at the intersection of symbol and substance where we should confront the problem of racial justice and racial equlity in America.
We are at a juncture in the political and social history of the country where we can either create and perpetrate a new myth based on the symbolism of the Obama Presidency, or use the fact of his winning the election and taking office, as the basis for attacking and dispelling old ones.  Although the Obama presidency represents yet another first in American political life, it is far from being a fundamental transformative event in the core of the political, economic, and social institutions and  structures in America.  That is why these conversations, discussions, and debates about race in America will continue to be important for some time to come.
The late George Carlin, provides a narrative which illustrates my point, to a degree:
"There's a condition in combat - most people know it by now. It occurs when a soldier's nervous system has reached the breaking point. In World War I it was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. That was 1917. A generation passed. Then, during the Second World War, the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. It takes a little longer to say, stretches it out. The words don't seem to hurt as much. And fatigue is a softer word than shock. Shell Shock. Battle Fatigue. The condition was being euphemized.
"More time passed and we got to Korea, 1950. By that time, Madison Avenue had learned well how to manipulate the language, and the same combat condition became operational exhaustion. It had been stretched out to eight syllables. It took longer to say, so the impact was reduced, and the humanity was completely squeezed out of the term. It was now absolutely sterile: operational exhaustion. It sounded like something that might happen to your car.
"And then, finally, we got to Vietnam. Given the dishonesty surrounding that war, I guess it's not surprising that, at the time, the very same condition was renamed post-traumatic stress disorder. It was still eight syllables, but a hyphen had been added, and, at last, the pain had been completely buried under psycho-jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.
I'd be willing to bet anything that if we were still calling it Shell Shock, Vietnam veterans might have received the attention they needed, at the time they needed it. But it didn't happen, and I'm convinced one of the reasons is the softer language we now prefer: The New Language. The language that takes the life out of life. " --- George Carlin (1937-2008)
That's what happens when we euphemize the hurtful, harmful, damaging, or destructive  code words or symbols.  We terminate our capacity to effectively and properly deal with the consequences or impact. 
We engage in the sterilization of the language of racial predjudice, and racial discrimination, without addressing the underlying causes of bigotry and hatred and then wonder why racism persists even in a world where Barack Obama can become President of the United States.  
Television is the most powerful instrument of mass communication yet developed.  The internet has increased our ability to communicate without doing much in the way of improving our communicative skills. The capacity of those who control the airwaves, or access to the internet,  to produce and then manipulate the code words and symbols that affect how and what people think and feel, is beyond description and the subject of yet another dialogue.
It is one thing for advertisers, sports franchises, corporate entities and the like to attempt to influence our thoughts and emotions when in competition with one another for our attention and our dollars.  It is quite another when when the government or other powerful sepcial interest entity, such as a political party,  attempts to do so by manipulating code words and symbols, which evoke stereotypes and myths that produce certain reactions and behaviors that result in people becoming distrustful or hateful or even violent toward each other at the group or individual level.
Suffice to say here that, we must be ever diligent in identifying the potential for misuse and abuse of the power that is being concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people. This can be done primarily by each of us becoming aware of how and when attempts are being made to manipulate or influence our thoughts and emotions with code words and symbols. We must have the courage to stand up and say no to the off color joke or remark, even when there is no "victim" present.  Becasue to let it go is to become both the perpetrator and the victim. 
We do this by listening to one another. For it is in hearing the complaint of the adversely affected, or the victim of the slight, slur or the epithet that we develop the sensitivity needed to understand how to effectively deal with the impact that it has on our collective selves.
We must speak up and speak out against the harmful language and the perpetrator whenever and where ever it is necessary to do so. It won't be easy, it never is, but it cannot be avoided if we are truly to protect and maintain the freedom of thought and expression we so deeply cherish.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968

by Ron Powell

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. He was the oldest son of the Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King. He was named Michael Luther after his father, but later the Reverend King changed both their names to Martin Luther in honor of the great church leader.
Unhappily racial experiences made a deep and lasting impression on young Martin. One day his father took him to buy new shoes. When they sat down in the store, the clerk asked them to move to the back of the store. Dr. King took Martin by the hand and left the store rather than take that kind of treatment. Another time, the parents of boys Martin played with told him that they could no longer come out to play with him because they were white and he was black. Martin's feelings were hurt. His mother tried to explain about prejudice. She told him that blacks were no longer slaves, but they were not really free.
Martin liked sports. He played baseball, basketball and wrestling. But he especially liked reading. He liked reading about famous people in black history. He found out what it took for them to overcome difficulties and become successful. He liked to learn new words and use them.
He was fascinated by watching his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and other ministers control audiences with skillfully chosen words. He longed to follow in their footsteps.
He made words central to his life--weapons of defense and offense. His mother said that she could not recall a time when he was not intrigued by the sound and power of words. He once told her, "I'm going to get me some big words like that." . When he got to high school, his ability to use words enabled him to win an oratorical contest.
In September 1944, when he was only 15 years old, King entered Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a black college, and his father and grandfather had gone there. He knew that his father would like him to become a minister, but at first Martin was not sure that was what he wanted to do. At first, he was undecided as to his course of study. However, his experiences at Morehouse shaped his direction for life. After meeting and talking with Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the college president, and Professor George Kelsey, head of the religion department, he made up his mind. King was enormously impressed. He saw in Mays what he wanted "a real minister to be"--a rational man whose sermons were both spiritually and intellectually stimulating, a moral man who was socially involved. Thanks largely to Mays, King realized that the ministry could be a respectable force for ideas, even for social protest. And so at seventeen King elected to become a Baptist minister, like his father and grandfather. At eighteen he was ordained a minister. The next year he graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in sociology.
Martin was an excellent student and was the class valedictorian when he graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer. While at Crozer, King attended a lecture by Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, who was the president of Howard University in Washington, DC. Dr. Johnson "explained how Gandhi had forged Soul Force--the power of love or truth--into a mighty vehicle for social change." He "argued that the moral power of Gandhian nonviolence could improve race relations in America, too." King was mesmerized by Gandhi's concepts, and began reading profusely about his life and philosophy.
In 1951, King graduated from Crozer as valedictorian. He also received the Peral Plafkner Award for scholarship, $1,200, and the Lewis Crozer Fellowship to continue his studies. While at Boston University, Martin met Coretta Scott. Coretta, a beautiful young lady from Marion, Alabama, a graduate of Antioch College in Ohio, was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. She and Martin were married in June, 1953. His father performed the ceremony at her home in Alabama.
Coretta had grown up with segregation too. She shared Martin's dream of a time when everyone everywhere could enjoy equal rights. On June 5, 1955, when he had completed his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology, the couple decided that they could make the greatest contribution by going back down South to work. Martin was installed by his father as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in October of 1954. Just a little more that a year later, Yolanda,
the first of the Kings' four children was born.
In December of 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Mrs. Parks was later tried in Montgomery City Court, charged with and found guilty of violating a state law mandating segregation. She was fined $10. Her attorney appealed the conviction. Coincident with Mrs. Parks' trial a one-day boycott of the buses by many members of Montgomery's Black community, was planned. Dr. King was asked to help, as was his friend, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. As a result of this, an organization was established, the "Montgomery Improvement
Association," (MIA) to orchestrate a complete and ongoing response to Montgomery's segregation. Dr. King was chosen president. Blacks walked to work or took cars or taxis, but they did not ride the buses. The one-day boycott stretched out to 382 days. Finally, after more than a year of protest, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was against the law.
Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that even though that battle against bus discrimination had been won in Montgomery, there was more that needed doing. As a result, on January 10-11, 1957, 60 Black leaders from 10 Southern states met at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and founded the Southern Conference on Transportation and Non-violent Integration. Its original agenda concerned "segregation in transportation facilities and voter registration."
In February 1957, the organization elected Dr. King as President and changed its name to the Southern Leadership Conference (SLC), organized to fight "Jim Crow" laws that discrimination against blacks. Offices for the new group were in Atlanta, and the Kings moved there. Martin became assistant pastor at his father's church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He spent much time traveling. He spoke all over the country, urging nonviolent ways of gaining civil rights. He and Mrs. King visited Europe and Africa. They went to India to study Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent ways of fighting for freedom.
King spoke of how a Pilgrimage would be an appeal to the nation, and the Congress, to pass a civil rights bill that would give the Justice Department the power to file law suits against discriminatory registration and voting practices anywhere in the South. On August 28, 1963, at least 250,000 people descended on Washington in the "largest single demonstration in movement history." Dr. King captured the day.
Following the march, the organizers were invited to a reception at the White House, where President John F. Kennedy "was bubbling over the success of the event."
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of Dr. King's crusade to secure equal rights for all came on December 10, 1964, when, at age 35, he was the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1966, he and his family moved to Chicago. People in the slums of big cities had problems that were as serious as the discrimination they faced in the South. King planned a Poor People's March on Washington, D.C. Shortly before the march, Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee, where garbage workers were on strike for better working conditions. He led marchers through the streets in support of the strike. Violence broke out, and a young man was killed.
On April 4, King stood on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, talking with men who had been with him in his many civil rights efforts....