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.