December 26, 2011
Coding Race

Let me offer some thoughts about an important issue in American political life that is informed by the Ron Paul flap, but that many Paulites might not be thinking about as they defend him: the concept of code. (Note that this discussion is about Ron Paul, not libertarianism as such.)

Code means using words that sound neutral but in fact have explicit racial or other discriminatory content. In the South, where I grew up just as segregation came to an end, and where Ron Paul grew up in the profoundly racist era of Jim Crow, code is the way polite people express racist attitudes and support policies that have racist effects. It is also a tool that can be used to encourage people who do not perceive of themselves as racists to support plans and programs that are nonetheless racist in their implementation—and were usually intended to be implemented to racist effect.

An easy example of “code” in the South is “crime.” Crime, of course, exists independent of race, but it is nonetheless deeply intertwined with racial content in America—especially in the South. One example of such intertwining can be seen in the notion of African American men as over-sexualized beings who need to be repressed in order to prevent them from raping white women. This theme has been common since the slavery era. (That this trope also induces women to stay at home and not risk their safety by going out and getting jobs or exploring the world is, from a certain point of view, a bonus: each idea reinforces a white, male-dominated worldview.) Other examples—rampaging hordes of looters; gang lords; etc.—of coded race/crime exist across society.

Images of racialized crime have had profound effects in the criminal justice system in the US. African American males are vastly more likely to receive the death penalty than are white males, for example; and on average sentences for drugs more typically used by African Americans (crack is one example) were significantly higher than for those used by whites (say, cocaine) until quite recently. African Americans—especially males—have been the primary target of the “war on drugs,” and we imprison a staggering percentage of that population.

But, importantly, lots of people who insist on the need to crack down on crime aren’t racists: the shibboleth “crime” obscures the racist outcomes the system perpetuates … and that at least some of the policy makers who created the “war on crime” intended.

Another common code phrase is “states’ rights.” The notion of states’ rights is, of course, deeply embedded in American life and culture, and rests on the fact that the US constitutional order is federal: states exist and have rights. It is perfectly possible to believe in “states’ rights” without having a racist bone in one’s body.

However, the notion of “states’ rights” has been most commonly evoked in very specific contexts: to defend slavery in the years prior to the Civil War, and to defend segregation against federal efforts to end it in the hundred years after the Civil War. In other words, states’ rights are most commonly asserted when states are insisting that they have the right to discriminate against large percentages of their populations, and that the federal government has no business trying to stop states from practicing or allowing discrimination within their borders.

I should be clear and state directly that the people who started using the term “states’ rights” to oppose desegregation in the 1960s (like George Wallace and Richard Nixon, among others) were absolutely clear in their own minds that the term was a political tool. They fully understood that the term “states’ rights” was linguistically neutral on the matter of race, and so allowed them to appeal for political support among people who might not have perceived themselves as racists, but didn’t like what the federal government was doing to end segregation: busing children to racially-mixed schools; ending racially-exclusive businesses, etc. They meant to appeal to racially-sensitive supporters (albeit in different degrees of racial tones) through apparently neutral concepts like states’ rights.

Note, again, that you might not mean to defend segregation when you evoke the notion of “states’ rights,” but the association is there regardless of your intent. Your audience is free—even in some cases (like in the South) likely—to make the association for itself.

Now add crime and states’ rights together. Imagine a politician in the American South giving endless numbers of speeches about the need to control crime and the importance of protecting states’ rights. Not a word needs to be spoken about race … but the racial component of the speeches is clear for any audience to see. “Vote for me,” the candidate is clearly claiming, “and I’ll lock up those dangerous black men and make sure your children never have to go to a desegregated school.” That may not be all the candidate means, but he or she means this, too—as anyone who understands the code knows.

This leads me to the question: if Ron Paul wrote, endorsed or didn’t bother to read the racist diatribes when they went out in his name—diatribes flooded with concerns about crime and states’ rights—is the fact that he now uses code words that are deeply embedded in racial meaning a representation of a core racism that he has just learned to hide better? Or is Ron Paul the only person in the South who can’t read code?

I don’t know if Ron Paul is a racist or simply a political opportunist. In either case, his is a particularly disgusting form of politics: one that draws support from the worst elements of American life and history while claiming to have no knowledge of them … even though he grew up in and still inhabits a society in which everyone—and I mean everyone—“gets it.”

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  6. inbonobo reblogged this from politicalprof and added:
    pretty good analysis of what goes on under the radar in terms of racism
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    This is a topic I’ve been trying to “educate” the younger Paul supporters who honestly don’t know this recent American...
  13. katrina-kay reblogged this from politicalprof and added:
    Interesting piece on the linguistic and political aspects of perpetuating racial discrimination in America.
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