By Emma Wonsil
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” – Iowa Congressman Steve King
When the New York Times interview that contained King’s quote broke, employees of NBC News received an email from their standards department. In it, they advised staff to avoid using the word ‘racist’ when describing the Congressman’s remarks. Why, in even blatant support of white supremacy, do news outlets shy away from using the term ‘racist,’ instead opting for the phrase ‘racially tinged’ or ‘racially charged’?
The issue of “racially charged” is its ambiguity. There is no official definition of racially charged, and as an adjective, it seems merely to describe any incident that has some racial aspect.
Recently, this umbrella term has been used to describe the Governor of Virginia’s yearbook photo, Liam Neeson’s desire to exact revenge on a black man, and the attack of Jussie Smollett. When reporting these events, the press chose to use a word that makes space for interpretation where the truth should stand.
In a functioning society, the press is responsible for informing the public. Bob Garfield, of WNYC’s On the Media, further explains that the press needs to “document events, illuminate wrongdoing and, not least, warn our audiences of approaching peril.” In all of these duties, it is imperative that the press presents the truth. The first principle of ethical journalism, as espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists is, “Seek truth and report it.” Using a cryptic term such as “racially charged” obscures the truth. If a newspaper published a headline that read, “Hurricane Somewhere Down South,” it would serve no use to the public. Readers of the newspaper would argue about precisely where the hurricane might be without knowing its actual location. The example sounds ludicrous because there is no incentive for being deliberately unclear about the position of storms. However, there does seem to be some incentive for reporters to be vague when discussing race.
The media’s allergy to the word ‘racist’ could be due to its need to remain “apolitical” or “non-partisan,” (or to at least appear so). This inclination may be even stronger now, for the risk of drawing the ire of President Trump and the label “fake news.” But now it is even more imperative for a free press to do their job. In the current political climate, in which the highest office of the land regularly lies to the American people, the press cannot afford to skirt the truth to appear unbiased.
The media’s use of unclear terms is especially concerning because it mimics the political strategy of obscuring racism through palatable language. Dr. Lawrence B. Glickman, a Professor in American Studies at Cornell University, explains that the phrase ‘racially charged,’ along with other euphemisms like ‘racially tinged,’ gained popularity following the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s when white southern politicians traded explicitly racist appeals for racially coded language. In 1981, Lee Atwater, a Republican politician, explained how the strategy evolved:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N——, n——, n——.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n——’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Atwater’s explanation reveals that this strategy relied on “abstract” language, which allowed racist policies to be shrouded. When the media fails to use specific language on racist acts, statements or policies, it masks the reality of this country. Touré, an American journalist and writer, explains the danger of camouflaging racism in an interview with Upworthy last year.
“If writers don’t insist on concrete language then readers risk not understanding. We can’t wink and hope they understand it’s racist behavior. White writers who shy away from calling racist behavior racist are helping racism survive.”
Touré names the danger of disguising racism with “respectable” language. It allows racism to be seen as acceptable instead of a system to be challenged. James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If we cannot name racism, how can we possibly begin to face it?
Emma Wonsil is a current candidate in the Ethics and Society Master’s program at Fordham University.