The Power of Words: Racially Coded Political Rhetoric
The Crunk Feminist Collective
9 Jan 2012
Newt Gingrich has repeatedly referred to President Obama
as “The Food Stamp” President while contrasting that
with his own aims to become “The Paycheck” President.
Ron Paul, in an attempt to beat unruly logic into
submission, has tried to convince us that
“entitlements” are not “rights.” In an effort to
dispute affirmative action and minority rights he
equates such “entitlements” with the “entitlements”
that big businesses get from big government, thus
causing the word itself to lose any precision it might
have had. This of course is in addition to his refusal
to clearly address his connection to several blatantly
racist comments on publications bearing his name.
Rick Santorum, descendant of Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare
Queen” rhetoric, told a room of mostly white voters in
Iowa that he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives
better by giving them somebody else’s money.”
Mitt Romney holds as one of his campaign slogans that
he vows to, “Keep America American.”
Rick Perry, in a stunning move of political
originality, asserts that our President is a socialist.
With the word “socialist” serving as a catch-all for a
whole host of undesirable traits and policies,
including, but not limited to, disrespect for the 10th
Amendment’s protection of states’ rights.
With one primary down and another coming up in New
Hampshire tomorrow, it has become difficult to avoid
the spectacle that is the quest for a Republican
candidate for President. A spectacle made such by a
cohort of candidates that stubbornly refuses to winnow,
casting us all into the Party’s frantic search for a
And so it begins in earnest: the contest within the
Republican Party to dig up its next contender. Let’s
start at the beginning, though. Elections are about
politics. They are condensed, hyper-charged and frantic
attempts to remove people from positions of power, or
by other to hold on to those positions or newly acquire
them. To do this they need to convince us that they
deserve these positions of leadership.
If politics is about communication, then it is also
inherently about language. And language is a
complicated medium, especially in the context of
rhetoric and persuasion as in the case of politics.
“For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which
we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus:
the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”[i]
This assertion was made by philosopher of language and
logic, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Later in his philosophical
career Wittgenstein proffered an uncommonly held belief
that the meaning of a word or phrase can best be found
by understanding the way that word or phrase is used.
By way of explanation: traditional theories of meaning
in the history of philosophy often looked to something
outside the word or phrase to give it meaning.
Something objective and/or representational.
Wittgenstein challenged this idea intensely and argued
that, “if we had to name anything which is the life of
the sign, we should have to say that it was its
Now, this detour through Wittgenstein’s (latter years’)
philosophy of language is to draw our attention to
language and its power. A point also made, albeit in a
completely different context, by another attuned to the
power of language, Audre Lorde:
“For in order to survive, those of us for whom
oppression is as American as apple pie have always had
to be watchers, to become familiar with the language
and manners of the op pressor, even sometimes adopting
them for some illusion of protection.”[iii]
With this contest, as in all past election years, we
are subject to contortions of history and murky poetics
of politically coded language, per Lorde’s caution. I
say “coded” because contrary to what the candidates are
saying, we have to look to the way these words, words
like “food-stamp president,” “socialist,” “entitlement”
and many others are doing some heavy lifting in regards
to race. They are imbued with meaning. If you don’t
believe me just consider for a moment their “use.”
Consider the potential complicity with our racist
legacies. Lorde and Wittgenstien, in each their own
manner, asked us to assume responsibility for the act
of listening to words for intent, for difference, and
for the way they are used. Our competing parties and
politicians give us competing aspirational narratives.
Narratives that tell us a story about our history, and
narratives that offer a vision of the future. So, we
have to ask: What are the Republican candidates (and
the Democratic ones, too, who deserve their own article
about race) offering to us as a vision?
Gingrich, Paul, Santorum, Romney and Perry’s comments
make the perfect case for the power of words. They
demonstrate racially coded rhetoric in an almost
symphonic manner. (Sexist rhetoric too, worthy of it’s
own full analysis, since there are similarities but
also important differences.) Let’s look at the
responses that these candidates are offering when
confronted with charges of using coded and racist
Currently, former Speaker of the House, Gingrich is
irritated with the response to his remarks calling
President Obama the “Food Stamp” President. Despite
having offered the NAACP his services to come and
explain himself, they remain uninterested in hearing
Gingrich’s explanations. Perhaps they consider it
futile to give Speaker Gingrich the opportunity to
explain how his comments are not simply about race.
Something that would be hard to back up with his policy
platform. Gingrich’s thinly veiled and deeply charged
language is clearly deploying the racist belief that
there are certain Americans (black and brown ones) who
would rather not work and that our President is allied
with such people and caters exclusively to their
Congressman Ron Paul, is dancing along a thin and
meandering line between coveting the votes of racists
while disavowing racist statements in newsletters
bearing his name. In fact, he rather clearly disowned
without disavowal when stating, “ If they want to
endorse me, they’re endorsing what I do or say — it has
nothing to do with endorsing what they say.” Given his
broad and deep connections with people who say and do
racist things, this is quite a non-apology and head
fake toward contrition, but barely even that.
Former Senator Rick Santorum, has indeed disavowed
racist intent, going so far as to claim that he doesn’t
recall making those comments and that he “condemns all
forms of racism.” This hasn’t of course gotten him so
far as to condemn his votes against affirmative action
programs, immigration reform and wage increases for
this country’s working poor.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Party’s
frontrunner, when vowing to “Keep America American,” is
positioning himself in opposition to President Obama,
undoubtedly. While some have apologized for claiming
that this phrase is a 1920s slogan from the KKK, it is
still worth investigating. When Romney positions
himself as the keeper of American identity, he is
implying that others are un-American. What does he mean
by implying that our first black President might be
un-American? Is it to question his values, his beliefs,
his policies? Perhaps it is all of those things, but to
deny that this is racially coded-language is naive at
best and willfully ignorant at worst.
And Texas Governor Rick Perry, perhaps in a league of
his own, carries on using the term “socialist” with
imprecision, and has defended the highly offensive (and
rather obviously racist) name of his family lodge, by
saying it had been painted over ever since he can
remember seeing it: an assertion that has come into
Racists, and those who stand by when racist things are
said, or actively exploit racism themselves, do not do
so with blatant pride (for the most part). Such are the
victories of the civil/human/womens rights movements,
of which we are proud and for which we are grateful.
Open declarations of racism are out of vogue. Which
means we must look closely for the deployment of coded
language and its aims.
When candidates talk about race without actually
talking about race they are acting in a subtle, yet
powerful, way to make the discussion about policy and
politics into one that is charged with race and racism.
Language is power. It comes from history and walks
through to the future. It creates and sustains meaning.
It holds the past and forges the present. It matters,
and its importance cannot be understated.
As Wittgenstein asserted, when investigating meaning,
the philosopher must “look and see” the variety of uses
to which the word is put. He said, in no uncertain
terms, “Don’t think but look!”[iv] So when we look at
this unyeilding use of clearly coded language, what do
[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations ,
1953, G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M.
Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell. P. 4.
[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books,
1958, Oxford: Blackwell.. P.4.
[iii] Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women
Redefining Difference.” Paper delivered at the Copeland
Colloquium, Amerst College, April 198O
[iv] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,
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