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FEBRUARY 25, 2014 9:07AM

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

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Revised and reposted from the "Open Dialogue On Race" series posted here 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 prejudice, 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.  Because, 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.  

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Often, as you make clear, the symbolic importance of Obama's election is forgotten and not understood. It will always be one of our greatest historical achievements, and the real basis for our standing as a force for democracy in the world.

I think what really bothers the retrograds is not only that he was elected, but he has proved himself a fighter. His dignity and confidence are unassailable and that is really what came to a head in the last midterms. Now that more moderates can see the cost of that to the nation, the question is whether they're going to let them get away with it in the next midterms.

Rated as I always do when I like a post.
I'm often flabbergasted at the vitriol that is propagated on the social media sites that is noting more than thinly veiled racism...
It's not only a macro phenomenon, it's also something you find right here. A friend of mine caught a lot of veiled racist language. One of its characteristics, at least at times, was how cute those using the language thought they were being, like "it's obvious I'm being racist but I'm not being quite blatant enough about it for you to call me on it, ha ha." Like one guy calling a Black friend of mine a "nagger." Yeah, like we don't get it.

What I tell people in situations like that is simple:
There's no reason to use that characteristic to attack someone when there are plenty of perfectly good ones out there. If I have something against you, I assure you that it will not be racial, it will be personal, and I will treat it as such.

The question I have is: Why push that particular envelope?

The question contains the answer. And that's how we know we still have a problem. Well, one way.
@BS,; Agreed...Thanks for taking the time to read and comment....
@BW; I posted ground rules for comments because the lack of civility on topics such as this is often appalling and counter-productive....Your observation is well founded....Thanks.....
@KS; Anyone who believes that elimination of the "n" word from civil discourse, and electing Barack Obama to the Presidency twice means that we have arrived at at post racial society, isn't paying attention ....Thanks for stopping by....
@HRdR; If that is the best you can do, you should apologize to your parents and/or request a refund of your tuition....

Thanks for your obedience to the rules...There's hope for you yet...
wow. the passage bt Carlin was amazing, and the whole post, a thig of beauty.
Rated and shared.
I went over there and answered him in a way that will mean something to him personally. If you're not familiar with his writing, what I said to him won't make much sense.

Racism is not cute.
my mind boggles at the crap this president has had to take, to handle.
what bothers me most is why the good americans who elected him aren't outside the studios of fox, of rush, of kookypants beck screaming for their heads and for them to STFU. really. just shut the fuck up. but they/we take it, this constant degradation, this constant insistant racist scum flinging. this is OUR president of OUR country.

they can't take it, that we elected an african american american. they just can't wrap their pea brains around it.
They like to pretend it isn't racism.
@KS; Made perfect sense to me....Thanks...
@SK; Your lavish praise is too kind...Thanks for taking the time to read and comment...
No, racism is not "cute" , even when you call me and mine t-bagger, Redneck, or Hillbilly.

It is amusing when you do so- and I take it with some amusement, because many of you actually act as if I ought to be offended by the terms and distance myself from them. It's been a long time since anybody could insult me by calling me a "Redneck"( Especially since, technically, I'm a "Shitkicker", not a "Redneck" - Hell, it's been a long time since anyone could insult me, period.

And that is the point. I got better things to do than go around looking for insults. If you want to insult me, you have to get my attention and tell me that that is your intent. Otherwise, I'm just going to laugh at you. That's how "Warriors" behave.

But while we're on the subject of "racial" insult, why isn't "Uncle Tom" or "House N*****" insulting when applied to Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain? just Wonderin...
@FM; His being black while President is the direct cause of the Republican Party being in complete disarray....Some of them can't wait for Hillary to run and win, which is why the 'real' Republicans won't get involved in the presidential primary process when the time comes...Get ready for a political sideshow which will feature a menagerie of right wing creatures we haven't got names for......yet!
So, Ron, let me get this straight:

"Get ready for a political sideshow which will feature a menagerie of right wing creatures we haven't got names for......yet!"

I get from this that you stand ready to "Make up Names" for these "Right Wing Creatures"- I presume you mean gracious and complimentary descriptions in order to help clarify the discussion and enhance reasonableness, and not

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

about MY ( Hmmm? why isn't that OUR?...) people.
I'm willing and eager to accept YOUR people as OUR people, if we can knock off the nonsense that color makes a difference and start addressing everyone as part of We The People- as Dr King wanted.
@HRdR: Maybe it's because they're not peckerwood, hillbilly, shit kicking, knuckle dragging, white honkie, trailer trash....But, want to be? Personally, I try to refrain from using such terms such as, Uncle Tom (a misnomer) and house n****r in reference to other black people...Calling them names won't cure them of being just plain WRONG!!!
@HRdR; No, not quite...It'll be more akin to developing appellations for newly discovered species of prehistoric protozoa...
so Ron, again, just to be clear

I'm not practising segregation or discrimination,

I invite you'all to be part of my human race. I will treat with you as such, as welcome kith and kin.

YOU are refusing to lower yourself to the level of us
"newly discovered species of prehistoric protozoa..."
because YOU and Yours aren't "peckerwood, hillbilly, shit kicking, knuckle dragging, white honkie, trailer trash...."

I guess what I take away from this post is that it's wrong for "Rednecks" ( White People? Political Conservatives?) to use "Racial and Racist Code Words, Symbols, Stereotypes, & Myths" but perfectly acceptable for You and Yours to use them.

Just to keep from offending you, What are YOU calling YOUR self these days?
@HRdR; As I said, I try to refrain from calling anyone anything other than his/her name......As for me, Ron, will do just fine.....Thanks......

Very good answer
I recall sitting in a place in Columbus Ohio I wouldn't have been able to go near except that I was the guest of the guy who owned it- a friend from an earlier time.

I happened to use the term "Black" and some of his people immediately informed me that that was an unacceptable term, even though in my day, it was THE term of Respect.

I turned to Bam Bam and asked, I don't know, what are you calling yourself these days, Bam?

His reply was "Bam Bam"

Ron it is....
Nicely done, Ron.

It should be noted that Carlin was a comedian who focused on observational humor. His perspectives, as much as I loved Carlin, were usually heaviest where the humor seemed most evident, and not necessarily the most accurate.

Regarding the changing terms for things like shell shock, the main reason is not only to make a term more acceptable, but because the previous term becomes a slur. Maybe that's how you meant it, but it bears mention.

As to why terms become slurs, why push the envelope? That act justifies the emotional hatred which preceeds it, and the antisocial behavior which follow it. It is like when a cop arrives at the scene of a fight, or a bank robbery, or a domestic abuse, a wide variety of criminal activities. One thing in common, almost to a 100% level was liquid courage, alcohol consumption. The slur, like nagger, is the elixir that fuels the inner rage and turns it into antisocial behavior.
And there is my question. Bill just asked it.

Why push the envelope?

Pushing the envelope takes you specifically away from your integrity.
Kosh, integrity in such matters is subjective. This sort of speech or antisocial demonstration is also coalition building. Things like racism are not the universal negatives that some would hope or think they would be. It is a powerful way to manilulate people. If someone stands, and points and utters a slur, it moves crowds. Some move behind the finger pointer saying, I hate those people too, even if silently, and others move away thinking, I don't want that finger pointed at me. Remember, survival is the first law. Integrity comes somewhere down the line. If you tend to see such issues as someone else's problem, you are not likely to see how it touches on your integrity. You are more concerned with keeping your own hide intact.
kosh, lately they don't bother to pretend.

it IS getting like nazi germany, these public assumptions of good old boy, good natured jab to the ribs bonhomme racism among friends.

I'm glad the discussion is continuing here and not in that other stupid thread where racism is some kind of joke. it's stupidity at best and not worth the click on the link. let it talk to itself.
Pushing the envelope-

Hmmmm, let me think..... Maybe because if I don't push back when people try to "bundle me up in an envelope" and label me as "racist/sexist/homophobic" they get to thinking that I will actually sit still while they run things "the Way They Should Be" without consulting me.

Not going to happen. I turn into an extraordinarily dangerous asshole when pushed into an envelope. So why push?

Why is it that you guys get to dismiss me and mine as ( insert trash talk of your choice) who are so frightened of you that apparently we must discuss you in "Code Phrase", while you guys get to openly insult me and mine?

Hint: Actual "Bigots" don't use "Code Phrases", they are rather proud of their diverse vocabulary and display it at any provocation : e.g. "newly discovered species of prehistoric protozoa..."
or "peckerwood, hillbilly, shit kicking, knuckle dragging, white honkie, trailer trash...."

just sayin
@BB; Thanks for the insightful comment....
Herr, actual bigots use all kinds of code words. You might want to reconsider that statement. It is utterly false.

As far as bundling you into an envelope, I don't even know who you are. I know nothing about you. It is not my way to bundle anyone into anything. That meets my definition of bigotry, and I oppose that. As for you specifically, you live about an hour from me. I have suggested that we meet and have coffee. My theory is that we would get along quite well. I get along with the vast majority of peope I meet. I have worked with the public for decades. Your response was to mention your gun pointed at me if I ever showed up. It was a strange response to a request to meet in person. Extremely strange, but certainly you have a right to your position. But Rude, who or whatever you are, my mind could not go the distance to try to bundle you in any particular way because I know nothing about you. I don't have the inclination to try to figure it out, just so that I could bundle you. And if I knew you, I would not bundle you with anyone else. You are uniquely you. You and I are in Ohio, and like about probably 9 million other nameless, faceless Ohioans, I will likely never know you. Other than this conversation, I don't give it the slightest thought. I don't know why you do.
@KS; Your supportive input here is greatly appreciated.....Thanks....
@HRdR; So now I'm a bigot....Seems I've touched a nerve some how somewhere....

Reference to the terminology of hatred and bigotry in the context of a rhetorical observation doesn't make one guilty of that which is being observed......Your attempts at deflection and/or changing the focus here ate adept but fall short of being masterful....Bait and switch is an often successful tactic on a used car lot, but not quite so with able and astute adversaries....Keep at it though, we welcome the exercise.....
I have stated on a few blogs my thoughts since Obama became president so I hope this isn't a repeat, but I think things racially have become worse. So many people were unmasked as hate filled, their assertions now in the open, their hatred palpable. In a bar/restaurant last night a middle aged white guy began to talk to the TV about OBAMACARE out came the code words for welfare, free loaders etc he looked around to the all white patrons nodding, I began to take him on verbally for a bit, let him know not everyone is "in' on the game. Needless to say, he shut down when actually confronted but it's what I am seeing all the time now. Until we live next to each other, raise our kids together and socialize together as friends and family I don't see it happening. It's just the beginning of the road.
@RS; Thanks for the read, comment, and 'getting it'...
Gosh Ron, how could you think that?

Touched a nerve? yep- my funny bone. Why, You're no more a Bigot than I am!

I'm sure you have a great many interesting things to say, I'm sorry that in the past, you have so exhausted my patience in trying to figure out what they are, that I no longer bother to read your comments.
Rita- good on you. Herstory will not be kind to the 'Keep your Gub'Mint hands off my Medicare [but I hate Obamacare]" crowd ... imagine, being against health care? For Seniors? College kids? Poor Children? Why indeed? The Tea Party will without question in years to come be unmasked as, sadly, a few scared patriots surrounded by so called Taxed Enough Already folks [who, by what coincidence? suddenly launched their Lower Taxes campaign just as Taxes hit their lowest point since Eisenhower!], financed by Fossil Fuel and chemical industry billionaires, and with the rest of its members being, essentially, Buckley's Vulgarians, formerly unwelcome at the go{Party}, the anti-fluoridation, anti Civil Rights John Birchers, and, YES, a few of the Klan thrown in for good measure ... as seen by the Confederate Flag at the Capitol a few months back ...
I'm not sure he is referring to when he says "Bill", but we can safely establish that it is not me. He reads me quite a bit. But most significantly, he has stated on his silly post about "nagger" excuse....whatever, that the Bill he is referring to is not me. He is referring to some other William. Glad that's settled.
Uh Bill,

I didn't say it was NOT you, I said I hadn't named you, that you were not really part of this particular discussion of Racial slur vs personal insult until you came forward and claimed recognition. I neither confirm nor deny. Something about "if the shoe fits...."

Good night, Emily, wherever you are.

Good night, Emily, WHOever you are.
Rude, when it was assumed by others that it was me, and then assumed by me since you did not correct them, you tried to imply that it was not me, remember? You went into some discussion of all the Black people named Bill...etc. Given its factual inaccuracies, clearly it must not be me.

Now you shift direction again saying that you had not identified me...etc. Even though you tried the silly, why would you assume its you, ruse.

That sort of equivocation is not good ana;ysis or testimony. It just makes you look opportunistic, manipulative, and dishonest. You even claimed not to read my comments, which has just been proved to be false.

You're dismissed, Rude. Clearly you have nothing of value to say.
Just curious here, but can anyone tell me why I should allow a perfectly good descriptive term "thug" to be co-opted as racist "code"?
Normal people have used the word like "gangster" in a totally descriptive and non-racially pejorative manner all my life, but a couple of times now since the Super Bowl someone tries to make it "racist code".
My second question is who writes the code-book?
I can't keep up with the misuse of verbiage by the arrogantly illiterate.

Thanks Bill, it's past my bedtime anyway. Hopefully I'll see you in the never never now.
"The New Language. The language that takes the life out of life. " --- George Carlin (1937-2008)
This really grabbed me. I had never seen that before.
Wow. Still reeling from it--as it is so right on and soulful. Thank you for including this quote in your dignified post.
Fred- Tupac released Thug Life in 1994 ... where you been G?
Who is Tupac?

Thugs were followers of Kali in 19th century who murdered fo fun and profit.

The British made war on them.

Subsequently the term's been used in America for over a century to describe such behavior.

Where am I wrong here
@HRdR; Now there's a twist....You characterize me as a bigot, then acknowledge your own bigotry by stating some kind of convoluted equivalency.....
Well, let me tell you that when it comes to ignorance and stupidity, I'm much more of a bigot than you are, or will ever dare to be...I find ignorance and stupidity loathsome and intolerable...I hate these human qualities and seek to eradicate them whenever and wherever I can...Unlike some who would either wallow in ignorance and stupidity or exploit the conditions for personal edification or gain.....
@PW; Your welcome....Glad you enjoyed it...
@OS; Thanks for stopping by and commenting....Hold those thoughts!
@FH; The code book exists in the phraseology of euphemisms and obfuscation....cowardice and condescension.....It is the language used by those who believe themselves to be superior when they speak about, or to, those they believe to be inferior...Pay attention you'll hear it every day....It just won't affect you in the same manner as those for whom such language, nuanced as it may be, is reserved....
Well. excuse me if I'm getting tired of being the collateral damaged in wars of words that I am not a part of.
Thanks for your post Ron. It's perhaps a small victory that racists at least have the apprehension that using overtly racist terms are unacceptable. Tom Cordle has often reminded us of how Lee Atwater said that (paraphrasing here) where you once could say "nigger", now you'd say "busing". But the objective was the same.

Brilliant quote from Carlin and one I hadn't heard of. Reminiscent of Orwell.

And a thanks to those shouldering the burden of rebutting Herr.
@AB, "Brilliant quote from Carlin and one I hadn't heard of."

I found and added one of the performances in which Carlin uses his material re "Shell Shock"

Thanks for looking in and the for the gracious comment....
Fred, you can be sure that you're not the only collateral damage. I had no idea of HRdR's post until seeing reference to them here. I would not have clicked on his post in the feed otherwise. He saw Ron Powell's post, and for some reason makes some connection which results in referencing me. There was nothing current, or remotely important about his musings on "nagger." I didn't care when he did it the first time, and I have no clue how long ago it was. Is it idiotic? Yes. Does it concern me? Nope. Somehow, HRdR imagines that I or someone wants his respect....adults table, etc. It reads like a self absorbed delusion.
Thanks Bill, that's very reassuring.

I'm trying to worry about the Crimea right now and petty haters can pretty much expect short shrift from me for the foreseeable future
Hey, thanks for adding the clip Ron. What a treasure Carlin was.
Excellent piece. The example by George Carlin is perfect, and brings your point it home.
To add to your point about not being quiet when witnessing the use of these *coded words*, there are times when people simply do not know what they are saying. Most often there is a tell, a give away that the speaker knows exactly what they are saying, but sometimes media and culture uses these words and phrases repetitively until they become absorbed by the mainstream and repeated by people that are supporting something they have no idea they are promoting.
I would want to know if I was a *carrier* of these infectious* code words, so I would hope someone would educate me! Here's an example: Oreo. Someone on OS called Bill an Oreo. I didn't know what that meant and had to ask.
Again, very good post.
@OIT; Thanks for stopping by and commenting ....The Carlin piece is priceless...
Glad you appreciate it as an appropriate example of my point....
not complete without an analysis of how far limbaugh has fallen. look his ratings are way down, advertisers scared of him. think he's in decline if you ask me. its not worth much thought. its true years ago he had astonishing influence. but it seems to be like a fire that in burning, consumes its own fuel & eventually dies out.
@vzn; He's been enticing people of lesser means, and even lesser political acumen, to vote against themselves for years. Information re income inequality and a paradigm shift in racist political tactics has caused a falling off re listeners and advertising dollars....Your apt observation has merit and is, indeed, worth mention here...Thanks for the contribution....