Saturday, January 26, 2008

This Issue of Code

After posting my last blog, I turned on MSNBC for a full day of politics and immediately saw in succession two Black men, one old and one young, claiming that some things the Clinton's have said are code -- that they have social meanings for Blacks that are negative in nature. I think that they are wrong and that what they are saying is as divisive as anything that the Clintons might have said. For something to be code, it has to be shared. It was not in this case.

First, we have to understand that all language has to be interpreted relative to the context in which it occurs. That is a given. Second, there are two types of code of interest here. One is code that is actually a cypher, as when one does some sort of letter substitution known to writer and reader or speaker and hearer that allows them to communicate without others who are not intended to receive the message understanding it. The codes of the military, CIA, etc. are examples of this.

There is another type of code in which people use language that on its face seems harmless but is understood as having some sort of negative meaning. The problem here is that like a military code it too is conventional in that there is a regular association of the negative meaning with the language used. Sports announcers often refer to certain receivers as "possession receivers." The great majority of these are White. In fact, I think that broadcasters automatically assume that if a receiver is White he is a possession speaker. In the 2006 football season, Ohio State had two great receivers, one Black and one Hispanic, the latter as White as any White man. The Hispanic one was constantly referred to as the "possession receiver" even though he was nearly as fast as the Black guy (who had near Olympic class speed), and regularly caught deep passes. Both were first round draft choices and both had successful first pro seasons.

Now there are things that Whites say that Blacks see as deliberately negative. Hillary said, "“Dr King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.” This is factually true. It says nothing whatsoever negative about Dr. King or Blacks or anyone else. Clinton was trying to make the point that Presidential leadership is critical to obtaining changes in policy that people want. Activists inspire -- politicians achieve. This is a fact. This in no way denigrates Dr. King's contribution. Without his inspiration, the dream would have come but surely much later than it did. But without Johnson's driving force and political skills, which were enormous, it probably wouldn't have been realized in law as soon as it was. We had the conjunction in time of the right activist and the right politician, both wanting the same thing.

The reality is that Blacks in general are as racist as Whites are. The problem is that Whites in general have power and Blacks in general do not. So long as that is the case, Blacks will often have a legitimate reason to see some remark a White person makes as racist or racial (evokes race but not as a put down per se). That does not mean that speaker meant it that way. I do not think Hillary's remark was either racist or racial. Obama turned into a racial issue.

Now, had Hillary said, "Martin Luther King was very well-spoken man and he was a great Black leader, but President Johnson is the one responsible for getting legislation through Congress and signing it," then we would have a racist statement. She didn't come close to that.

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Blogger Bilbo said...

It's unusual for someone (other than me, it seems) to come out and make the obvious observation that blacks can be just as racist as whites. As you point out, communication is information shared within a common context of understanding. Problems arise with the assumption that someone else can't understand the message because he or she is male/female/black/white/hispanic/etc. In general, we spend too much time parsing communications for hidden codes and meanings and taking offense at them.

9:17 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you, Bilbo. I figured I would be charged for racism. Blacks continue to play the victim card whenever they have a chance. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton get on the first plane to get to some fire they feel they can usefully pour some oil on. That is what made Obama so attractive. He seemed to play the political game straight up. But when he parsed Hillary's statement the way he did, he played the victim card.

If a woman or Black runs for President and parses any claim of an opponent makes for an opportunity to call a "foul" by exploiting the victim card which they know will cause all guilt-ridden White liberals to come to their aid then they become virtually impossible to campaign against.

However, there is a guideline Hillary should consider when about to make a claim in regard to Obama and this is, "Could I reasonably say the same thing of Edwards in the same context?" If the answer is "No," she had to back off. Similarly if Obama is about to make a claim in regard to Hillary, he needs to ask whether he could say the same thing about Edwards. The first is a filter for racially insensitive remarks and the second for gender insensitive remarks.

Having said all this, Bill does need to cool it a bit. We have never had a former President campaigning for a spouse and he needs to be careful. Personally, I am beginning to like Edwards more and more.

10:21 AM


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