Thursday, August 14, 2008

Racial Code Words

I’m confident this article from Reuters by Matthew Bigg on "racial code words" is going to have the right-o-sphere up in arms. I have to say I am sympathetic to their plight. How do you attack a relatively young, relatively inexperienced, African-American presidential candidate without being tagged with the racist label? Even for academics who think about this stuff for a paycheck, finding a "bright line" definition of what is "code" and what isn't is challenging. For instance, Was this "code" or a slip of the tongue?

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.

What about this?

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.

One obvious difference was that Clinton's statements were in response to an interview. The words were uttered in the moment and thus probably the result of a really bad juxtapositioning of words.

The McCain ad, on the other hand, wasn't an impromptu response to a reporter's question. The ad might be trying to tap into these fears of miscegination. But that doesn't pass the logic test. Polling suggests that very few people are against interracial marraige.

Those for whom that message would be salient are concentrated in the 65+ demographic. In 2007, 75% of people over 50 years of age approved of interracial marriage as opposed to 90% of people under 50.

Personally, I think that anyone with qualms about voting for a black presidential candidate has already made up their minds to vote for McCain. So if there is an appel to miscegination going on, it's probably a wasted effort to convert people who are already on your side.


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Black Political Analysis said...

Racial code words are difficult to discern. Perhaps it's a simple mistake, perhaps it's calculated (a la Reagan talking about states' rights at the Neshoba County fair in Mississippi in 1980). But, this brings me to my second point. Where a candidate speaks and to whom he speaks can clue us in on any implicit appeals to race. When 90-95% of a candidate's speeches are in front of all-white audiences, that is likely as good as sign as any about the multicultural support of their message.