The Power of Words: Racially Coded Political Rhetoric

9 Jan


New 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 standard-bearer.

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 use.[ii]

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 rhetoric.

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 interests.

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 1920’s 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 question.

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 we see?

[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, P. 88.

12 Responses to “The Power of Words: Racially Coded Political Rhetoric”

  1. ladybuddha January 9, 2012 at 10:24 AM #

    thanks for this post. it’s really been amazing to watch/listen to them. rick santorum tried to walk back his “black people” comment to say “blah people.” the height of ridiculousness! FWIW:
    1) the iowa caucuses are considered caucuses and not a primary. that makes the new hampshire primary the “first in the nation” officially. although it is, obviously, the second contest. for political insiders, this precision of language matters a great deal.

    2) the field *is* winnowing, albeit slowly. herman cain, for instance, dropped out weeks ago. michele bachmann is out after the iowa results, and did not appear in the last two debates just this weekend. i do expect the remaining six to stand firm until after south carolina or florida’s primary.

  2. Betsy Klampert January 9, 2012 at 9:29 PM #

    A very thoughtful commentary on this disturbing trend among the Republican contenders.

  3. Mike January 10, 2012 at 11:30 AM #

    Brilliant! Reminds me of something Chomsky said about the reversal in meaning of “conservative” and “liberal” starting in the mid-to-late 20th century. The imprecision of all of their language allows for plausible deniability and unfortunately large swaths of the country are willing to aid and abet these candidates’ racism. The situation would appear completely hopeless if not for the fact that the odds of a Republican presidential victory were so slim (though not out of the question).

  4. Mary pike January 10, 2012 at 11:59 AM #

    Please offer you assessment of huntsman. I appreciate your analysis

  5. Aaron Dellutri January 15, 2012 at 6:09 PM #

    Thanks, eeshap, for this very interesting take on coded language. The attitude that language means what people think it means is my view as well, and it is interesting that it originated with Wittgenstein, thanks for that info!

    On a more personal note, I have found it educational to work with a man who, like me is a white male, but unlike me really dislikes blacks and has used constant low-level harrasment to drive them out of our work team. Yet my co-worker is also clever, and always maintains a level of plausible deniability in his attacks. It has shown to me the truth of Maya Angelou’s statement “When people tell you who they are, listen to them”. In other words, I am learning to understand the secretive nature of racism in this era, and I am also learning to trust my own perceptions about racism. What my senses tell me is a form of racism, often really is a coded form of it.

  6. itzadundeal January 17, 2012 at 3:05 PM #

    “Open declarations of racism are out of vogue. Which means we must look closely for the deployment of coded language and its aims.” #truthbetold so #speak As long as we all look different (yet are somewhat the same), RACISM will be invited to the table (however coded & or “subtle” it is).

    Thanks for the insight.


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