Coded racism

Nobody likes to be called a racist. Well, almost nobody, but nobody who wishes to be taken seriously by the general public. We have developed a knee-jerk reaction to racism that has made even the mention of race-sensitive issues abhorrent. This reaction is far from irrational – people have seen how destructive the ideologies of racism are, and how deeply-wounded marginalized communities have become as a result of societal racism. Most people have friends, romantic partners, perhaps even relatives, that are from a different racial group; everyone recognizes that discriminating based on race is a bad thing.

The problem arises when this aversion to racism causes us to become willfully blind to racist practices around us. When confronted with them, we are more likely to explain them away rather than simply admit that we might not be perfect “non-racists”. I’m a particular fan of the way that Stewart Lee characterized it: “…if political correctness has achieved one thing, it’s to make the Conservative party cloak its inherent racism behind more creative language.” Of course we can substitute “Conservative party” with “general public” in most cases. We live in a racist society, and nobody is immune from the subtle voice of cultural indoctrination whispering in our ears.

Given this lack of immunity, the only tools we have to combat the effects of racism are self-awareness and intellectual courage (and surprise…). However, it seems that we prefer instead to use a lexicon that allows us to continue our racist behaviour without seeming racist. This is referred to generally as ‘coded racism’, which I will define as statements of racist ideologies that are carefully designed not to appear racist. I will, for the sake of illustration, give a few examples.

Arizona’s anti-immigration law

Those of you who have been paying attention to the news probably know about Arizona’s new anti-immigration bill, supposedly designed to reduce the amount of illegal immigration to the state. Leaving aside the fact that illegal immigration has absolutely nothing to do with Arizona’s financial woes, the bill reeks of coded racism. The most debated aspect of the bill is the provisions that require police officers to detain anyone that “looks illegal”. No standard has been provided for determining what an illegal immigrant looks like, or how to distinguish someone that “looks illegal” from someone that looks like a legal immigrant. The process is simply left up to a sort of “c’mon… you know what we’re talking about” process.

Defenders of the bill (and there are many) repeatedly affirm that racism and racial profiling are not the purpose of the legislation, stating instead that it is about fighting illegal immigration; and if all the illegals just happen to be brown-skinned people, that’s just an accident of statistics. We are asked to simply ignore the ‘wink-nudge’ aspects of the bill, along with the extreme anti-Hispanic attitudes that accompany it, and pretend that we don’t see how clearly it targets one group of people. Illegal immigration may be a serious issue in Arizona, and if it were, a program that finds a way to minimize the damage would certainly be necessary. However, one that simply gives police discretion to start locking up people based on the way they look is quite clearly racist, even if we don’t want to use those words to describe it.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”

Many of you will likely remember a year ago when a group intended to build an Islamic community centre in Manhattan, a few blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center. People immediately began frothing at the mouth, calling it the “Ground Zero Mosque” and claiming that it was a plot by terrorists to insult America. Again, leaving aside for a moment that there was already a mosque there, that they weren’t building a mosque, that the construction would have modeled religious tolerance (something that that particular group of terrorists hates), and that Muslims died in the Sept 11th attacks too, the language used was couched in a kind of “this is about terrorists, not Muslims” language that the frothiest of opponents quickly turned to whenever the racist aspects arose.

I will happily concede the point that ‘Muslim’ isn’t a race. That still doesn’t help the argument. The faces of the fight, of the “secret terrorists” was not that of members of the Nation of Islam (with its militant history) or recently-converted white people (converts are among the most zealous); it was Arabs. When a group of protesters mistakenly confronted a construction worker and began screaming at him, it was based on the fact that he was dark-skinned (black, in fact, but he looked Muslim :P). The particularly galling aspect of this particular issue is that these same opponents would like us to give credence to the ‘wink-nudge’ of putting up an Islamic centre at Ground Zero – “c’mon, you know it’s a thinly-veiled insult to those that died”, but then completely reject the “c’mon, you know it’s racist” criticism from the other side.


Remember that time that a majority of Americans elected someone with a long history of community service and patriotic dedication, and how his racial identity was the sign of a new, more mature America? Yeah, me either. What I remember is how every excuse was leveled at a black president (“He’s a secret Muslim!”, “He’s a Black Panther!”, “He’s a Kenyan communist sympathizer”) including the accusation that he was foreign-born. This of course despite the fact that he had released his birth certificate during the campaign, that being born in another country doesn’t necessarily preclude you from holding the office of President, and that the guy on the other side of the election actually was born in another country. No, it was pretty clear that the narrative was about Barack Obama being an “other”, and therefore being a bad choice for president.

The Birthers would have us believe that their chief concern is adherence to the Constitution, and certainly not anything that is motivated by racism. I will certainly accede that a lot of their motivation has to do with hating Democrats and liberals rather than simply blind racial hatred. However, their actions and staunch refusal to accept the evidence (even when presented over and over again), coupled with their close ties to the Tea Party, who is making these accusations (how many black, hispanic, or Asian birthers do you think there are?), and the nature of the rhetoric buzzing around Obama that wasn’t there for Clinton, one can’t help but see that race enmity is very much a part of the Birther ideology.

You’ll undoubtedly have noticed that all three of the examples I’ve provided are American. This isn’t in any way to suggest that we here in Canada don’t do the exact same thing, particularly when it comes to talking about First Nations people and their ‘government handouts’. That being said, Canadians are much more stealthy in our use of coded racism, being far more shy about it than our neighbours to the south. These are three dramatic and notorious examples of this process at work.

As I said earlier in this post, it is only by having the courage and integrity to confront our own ideas and motivations that we can identify and eliminate this kind of verbal cloaking. Being able to identify racism and being unafraid to call it out is the first (and second, I guess) step to ameliorating the problem. Failure to do that will only serve to keep us looking the other way, to the detriment of racial minority groups in perpetuity.

TL/DR: As racism has become more unpopular (but no less rare), we have developed a new lexicon to express racist ideas without appearing overtly racist.

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