How To Read Political Racial Code

Using certain words to invoke stereotypes and racial fear is a reprehensible but time-worn tactic

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Part of my job when I speak about politics is to speak up for black people and say things black people need said. This mission has rarely felt so necessary as it has when racial code words recently entered the Presidential election. These code words are ancient racial stereotypes in slick, modern gear. They are linguistic mustard gas, sliding in covertly, aiming to kill black political viability by allowing white politicians to say ‘Don’t vote for the black guy’ in socially-acceptable language. Sometimes the code comes directly out of a candidate’s mouth. Sometimes it comes from supporters, or can be found in advertisements.

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Do not be fooled by the canard that both parties do it. That was former RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s response when I asked him about it on my MSNBC show “The Cycle.” Using certain words to invoke racialized fear and scare white working class voters is a long-established part of the Republican playbook. The GOP is a 90% white party and has been for decades. According to Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, Mitt Romney will need over 60% of white people to vote for him or he will lose. “That,” Brownstein says, “would be the best performance ever for a Republican Presidential challenger with that group of voters.” Given that math, in a base turnout election where Romney has a big lead among white, non-college educated men, it’s understandable why he’d try to motivate those voters with code words that remind them of their racial difference with Obama and stigmatize that difference. In this effort a word like “welfare” is extremely valuable. Sure there are more white than black Americans on welfare, but when a candidate says ‘welfare’ many whites think of their tax dollars being given to blacks.

So when Romney began running ads about Obama “dropping the work requirement from welfare” — ads which are still running even though the claim has been thoroughly debunked — he was merely updating Ronald Reagan’s old “welfare queen” meme. Both are designed to create racial resentment around entitlements. This tactic is bolstered by the classic stereotype of blacks as lazy. A recent Pew Research Center poll, for example, found that 57% of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. When a recent Washington Post poll asked “Why do most black voters so consistently support Democrats?” the second reason given by Republicans was “black voters are dependent on government or seeking a government handout” while for Democrats it was that “their party addresses issues of poverty.” (The top answer for members of both parties was “Don’t know”.)

(MORE: Romney Plays the Race Card)

Another classic code word — that hasn’t cropped up in this election yet — is “crime.” Like welfare, even though more whites commit crimes than blacks, the word is more associated with blacks who have historically been stereotyped as wild, violent, animalistic and immoral. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, “What it means to be criminal in our collective consciousness has become conflated with what it means to be black, so the term white criminal is confounding, while the term black criminal is nearly redundant.” The classic example is President George H. W. Bush’s famous ad using inmate Willie Horton as a way to portray Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and thus unable to protect us from wild black criminals.

There’s also the cornucopia of terms and concepts created to de-Americanize Barack Obama, from calling him “Muslim” or “Socialist” to Romney surrogates like John Sununu saying things like, “I wish this President would learn how to be an American.”  There is also a return to birtherism, with Romney recently joking, “Nobody’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” The subtext of all this is: Obama, like other blacks, is not one of “us.” He is other.

Do Democrats use racial code? No. The Democratic party is a racially diverse coalition. There would be no value to playing this game. In fact, the party has risked alienating white working class voters by fighting for people of color, a tightrope perhaps best symbolized by President Johnson signing the 1964 Voting Rights Act and then famously, and presciently, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.”

(MORE: Will Black Voters Punish Obama For His Support of Gay Rights?)

If Johnson could see the modern electoral college map he would recognize his continuing impact in a solid red South, but many say that a white-dominated political party leaning on racial appeals to survive will not work much longer. The Hispanic population in America is rising rapidly and as Brownstein points out, “Whites have declined as a portion of the electorate in every presidential election since 1992, according to exit polls.” Those are two frightening trends for the future of the GOP and even prominent Republicans are publicly admitting it. “The demographics race we’re losing badly,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently told the Washington Post. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

But for now, as the GOP paddles furiously trying to stay viable as an all-white party, we must shine a harsh light on their attempts to use old racial stereotypes to win votes.