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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  1. says

    I hope you write a similar piece talking about the racism that pervades Canadian society.

    One anecdotal example is during an interaction with a Conservative campaign manager at a Conservative party event I suggested that one simple practical step that could be taken by the government to ensure an improvement in the quality of life of First Nations people living on reserves would be to provide them with adequate water and power infrastructure. The white elderly male manager responded: “What did your grandfather do when he didn’t have running water? He built a well! Four letter: W. O. R. K. Work. That’s what these people don’t understand. Have you ever heard of the concept ‘reserve mentality’? That’s their problem. My wife is aboriginal, so I know.”

  2. Will says

    Great article! I recently got into a debate with someone on Facebook about the coded racism of Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. They kept saying that, since they were Hispanic and they agreed with the laws, that the laws were not racist. A glance at their profile revealed their extreme Right-wing bent, and it seems so obvious to me that they have bought into those talking points. I made an argument from facts and reason as to why the laws were racist, and how the ways immigration is talked about is racist. His response was basically “Nuh-uh!” Obviously, I cannot engage someone like that in a rational conversation, but it does make me wonder…What is a good way to respond to people of color who have bought into the privilege and coded racism that the Right is based on and don’t even realize it?

    Great site! Thanks for taking the time to keep it going.

  3. says

    Thanks Rob, and I will continue to try and point out systemic racism in Canada whenever I encounter it. The reason I presented American examples is because they are less varnished and therefore easier to parse than most of what you see in Canada (the distinguished manager’s comments notwithstanding).

    In the interest of fairness I will point out that there is a tiny nugget of truth in that giant racist turd of a remark. Namely, that handouts are an evidently poor way of improving standard of living amongst marginalized communities. The trick is to make resources (money, expertise, oversight) available, but to have the community set the direction and undertake the project. The sense of ownership and collaboration goes a long way to making the projects sustainable and effective. Saying that “you just need to work” doesn’t really speak to this approach, but like with most conservative talking points there is a useful perspective buried deep within.

  4. says

    Thanks for the comment, Will

    It’s not uncommon to see people of a given group adopt the discriminatory ideologies of the other side. I know more women who will admit to being anti-feminist than I do men, and there’s a huge contingent of the atheist population that make their money criticizing other atheists using the language of the religious. Insofar as ideas are separate from people, the speaker isn’t really relevant to the quality of the position. However, there are often contextual and experiential perspectives that are available to members of the in-group that sometimes change the nature of the argument, and those are important. That being said, it sounds like your friend hasn’t really thought much about his position, so there may be room to insert some facts.

    My shields immediately go up whenever anyone asks the question “what is a good way to talk to (group X) about (topic Y)?” The question often presupposes that group X is ignorant on topic Y, and that there’s a secret code that can fix that issue. I don’t think that’s your purpose here, but often these kinds of questions go in that direction. My advice always starts with the word “listen”. It’s of central importance to understand why members of a group feel the way they do, particularly if you’re not from within that group. They may have perspectives that you hadn’t considered, and there’s an opportunity for you to learn. If you’ve listened honestly and you still disagree, then you can speak on the topic with increased sensitivity to any details you might not have known before. It’s definitely how I changed my tune when it came to feminist issues – more listening and less talking made me realize that I was the one that needed an attitude adjustment.

    Anyway, that advice is more for people in general than it is for you specifically – I don’t really know the particulars of your interaction with your friend, and it’s beyond me how anyone could see “looks illegal” as anything other than racist.

  5. Will says

    You’re right, I can see how that question could go in bad directions. I guess I just didn’t know how to respond to him at first because this was the first time I’d ever personally experienced a person using the “well I’m x and prejudice against x is not happening” argument when, frankly, it’s well documented that that’s exactly what’s happening. He is being willfully ignorant of the racism in order to maintain his ideological worldview. I made it clear that I was not calling any particular person a racist, but that the policies and language were racist. He just kept talking about taxes and “how those illegals are overburdening our economy” (his own words). When I pointed out that “illegals” was exactly the racist language I was talking about, he pulled the PC card. No amount of facts debunking the myths of immigration were going to change his mind.

    Annnnyway, long story short I guess I was just looking for advice on how to deal with that particular kind of person. Not really how to deal with group x about topic y, but specifically how I can respond *after* I’ve listened and it is clear that the person is dead wrong. I make it a habit to listen and ask questions to try to understand where a person is coming from (this comes from being an anthropologist, I think), and I am genuinely interested in why people think what they think. It’s just that many people feel threatened when you start probing their worldview, especially when you start pointing out the flawed thinking behind some of their deeply held beliefs, which hardly ever leads to a constructive discussion.

  6. says

    People are happy to throw up cognitive roadblocks, and sometimes there isn’t much to be done about that. However, I despair of ever completely changing someone’s mind in a single conversation anyway. It takes time and reflection for most people to come around on an issue, so oftentimes there’s nothing to do except listen, hope that they are listening too, and try your best to inject some cognitive dissonance. Don’t pin your hopes on winning them over immediately – that’s the only way to get out of a conversation like that with your cerebrum intact 😛

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