Posted on August 15, 2008

When It Comes to Race, U.S. Politicians Talk in Code

Matthew Bigg, Reuters, August 14, 2008

The issue of race in U.S. politics is so sensitive and explosive that it has a language all its own. For outsiders, the code can be hard to break.

Indirect words, phrases and euphemisms have long been used to discuss race in the United States, and the subject has drawn more attention this election cycle because Democratic candidate Barack Obama is black.


At the same time, references to his alleged “inexperience” as a one-term U.S. senator and perceived “arrogance” on a trip to Europe and the Middle East last month could also be seen as subtle racial digs, political commentators say.

Inexperience might be a substitute for an idea with roots in the era of U.S. slavery that African Americans couldn’t be trusted, while arrogance can be a way of suggesting that black people are “uppity” or above their station, they said.



During the primary campaign when parties chose their general election nominee, there were several instances in which candidates were criticized for using covert—and at times inadvertent—language to talk about race.

When he announced his candidacy in February 2007, then Democratic hopeful Joseph Biden described Obama as “articulate and bright and clean.”

Critics said his words were patronizing and suggested he was surprised a black man could be articulate and clean. {snip}

In May, Hillary Clinton said Obama’s support was weakening “among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.” Her comments were read by some as implying that blacks were lazy but also as a subtle appeal to white racial solidarity.


Racial references touch raw nerves when they allude to negative stereotypes about African Americans to do with laziness, criminality, untrustworthiness or sexuality.

An advertisement run by McCain’s campaign this month, which portrayed Obama as a celebrity who was not ready to lead, sent a subtle racial message by flashing images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, according to Ronald Walters, professor of politics at the University of Maryland.

Walters said the ad played on deep cultural fears about inter-racial dating and marriage, which was illegal until the 1960s in some U.S. states.


At the same time, many people object to language which can be construed as playing on white guilt.

When Obama told an audience last month he would look different as president to his predecessors, some of whom are on U.S. currency, McCain’s campaign said he had “played the race card and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”

Both sides denied they were attempting to exploit race and neither explained exactly how the other side’s words were racially loaded. {snip}