Coded Language: The Danger Of Politicians’ Weapon of Choice

Photo credit via hrreview.co.uk Belatina, Latinx
Photo credit via hrreview.co.uk

Imagine being slowly brainwashed by the racist and sexist words your country’s politicians have been using all your life. 

The incorporation of repeated coded language like “illegal immigrant” against people from Latin American origins, “bossy” to describe women who are simply assertive or “thug” to describe men of color who aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, is slowly but surely dividing our society through fear tactics. 

Worse still, when used over time, this language becomes effective for conservatives to gain political power.

The Trump administration has been using what is called dog-whistle politics, defined as suggestive language or code words, to garner support from a wider audience. The dog whistle analogy refers to ultrasonic dog whistles used in sheepherding. But in this case they serve the purpose of attracting an intended political audience without garnering anger from the opposition.

How creepy is that?  

It’s time to dismantle all the coded language the alt-right and conservative media is using to garner support and see things for what they really are. 

The National Education Association defines coded language as “the act of substituting terms describing racial identity with seemingly race-neutral terms that disguise explicit and/or implicit racial animus.” 

Coded language is usually aimed at groups or ideas that threaten traditional power structures.  In the United States, for instance, things that aren’t male, white, heterosexual, and of a Christian faith are not trusted. These terms are commonly used against women, people of color, and religious groups, such as Muslims, and people who identify as LGBTQ+. 

Whether it’s used in political speeches, social media, or at family barbecues, coded language is found everywhere these days. And sometimes people adopt it into their own speech without realizing how harmful it can be. 

When a person uses coded language to speak about racial stereotypes, they perceive they are doing it without the stigma of explicit racism, so that it’s almost passible. It’s a way of sidestepping blatant racist or sexist thoughts by hiding them in cagey language, and it’s not acceptable. 

How do you know if it’s a coded language? 

Usually, it is detectable when you try to apply it to another group of people. Have you ever noticed that a white, straight man is almost never called bossy, sassy, or uppity for asserting himself? 

Hillary Clinton is constantly called bossy. Michelle Obama has been described as sassy, and the conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh called her “uppity” in her role as the first lady. 

Is that fair language? No, it isn’t.

Luckily, when a careful listener spots these veiled terms, it fosters anxiety due to the way it dehumanizes people. But when it is used over and over, like a broken record, and on non-detecting minds, ultimately it winds up doing harm. 

Ultimately, the only way to get around coded language is to call it out, explain what’s really going on, and openly discuss how to work through bigoted fears. But if the majority of people don’t know how coded languages work or know how to confront its use, the job gets doubly difficult.

Attention sassy women! Beware of conservative media (and Trump)

If you zap through some news channels tonight, you’re likely to pick up on some coded language. 

Pay attention to your typical witness describing the assailants, and imagine that it’s a group of adolescent boys of color, and you’re likely to hear coded language terms like “pack animals” or “menacing.” These are examples of code words that play into white people’s fears of non-white youth. It allows people to defend themselves by criticizing a group’s behavior, but not a specific racially defined group.

Trump is a master of coded language. 

We first saw it in his 2016 campaign speech pinpointing Mexicans as “bad people” to fear.

“When Mexico sends its people, they´re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems,” he said. “And they´re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they´re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Coded language allows politicians, the media, and members of the public to tap into bigoted ideas while denying that’s what they’re doing. 

The professor and author Ian Haney López teaches in the areas of race and constitutional law at Berkeley Law School. In his book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class Haney López details the fifty-year history of how politicians exploit racial pandering to fracture social solidarity and ultimately to convince many voters to support rule by the rich.

His most recent book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, Haney López explains how the political manipulation of coded racism and its language has evolved in the Trump era, while also offering an evidence-based approach to neutralizing political racism and building cross-racial solidarity.

“Almost every conversation on the right has as a subtext an indication of race,” Haney López told Vox. “On the left, we’ve got this move that says we shouldn’t talk about race, because race is divisive, so let’s just focus on economics.” 

“It’s a disaster because we’re not responding to the racial narrative, so we’re not responding to white people’s genuine racial fears. At the same time, we’re not really addressing the genuine racial justice issues confronting communities of color, which is part of what the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to do.”

Haney López goes on to explain that what Trump did in that terrible speech is to act as if he were willing to concede that some Mexicans might be good people, so that he could get off the hook by not saying that every single Mexican is a rapist. 

That’s a perfect example of a sneaky coded language move.

Stopping Dog Whistlers

Dog-whistle politics actually began in the late sixties in the Richard Nixon era, in an attempt to tap into racial resentments among white audiences. His administration used coded references to “welfare queens” and “invading” immigrants “infesting” the United States with drugs and gangs. 

Using language like this and avoiding explicit slurs has helped Republicans, then and now, from alienating moderate Republican voters who may get turned off if they are too racist and direct in their language.

“It’s using dog-whistle messages to tell whites that the basic threat to their lives is racial, that between races is the fundamental reality of American life,” Haney López told PBS. “This distracts from the real threat: the power of the top one-tenth of one percent in America to rig the economy and siphon wealth up to the economic stratosphere.”

Let’s not let Trump or anyone in our society widen racial divisions anymore. Let’s be frank about our fears by talking about them openly and building solidarity. Dividing our society is the main weapon of the rich, so let’s blow our own whistles on coded language and put an end to this dangerous political tactic.