If it was discriminatory then, it’s probably discriminatory now.
By: Anthony Conwright
How do you distinguish between fantasies of racism stimulated by “code language” and actual racism? An interesting way to put any perceptions of racism and discrimination into context would be to look inside America’s history. Historical context clues provide a vehicle for decoding certain words and phrases that may have racist and discriminatory roots. For example, the phrase “separate but equal.” If you were to hear someone say, “I support separate but equal [insert institution],” you should start to cringe. If you are aware of the discriminatory implications that “separate but equal” brings forth, then you know what someone like David Duke is suggesting when he says, “Just as in the natural world every life form needs its own living space, and needs the preservation of its own ecosystem to survive and flourish, so it is true for every people of Humanity.” The separate-but-equal sentiment has not become less discriminatory because it’s 2012 and not 1960.
Barack Obama, our first half black half white president of the United States, has to deal with “code language” quite often. In the case of the “birther” movement, the code language is “he is not one of us,” but what does that mean? Most birthers are not shy in defining it. The crux of that statement is that Barack Obama is not an American citizen thus making him ineligible for the presidency of the United States. In order to answer my own questions about the birther movement, I decided to look for instances to see whether or not the same language was used to attack other black congressmen. The first black man elected to the United States Congress was Hiram Rhodes Revels. Revels, the North Carolina native, was elected into the Mississippi State Senate in 1870 and served as a republican until 1871. Back then, a senator was appointed by the state legislature as opposed to being directly elected by the people. Opposition to Revels election was predicated on the Dred Scott decision. A decision that declared all blacks (slaves or free men) were not and could never become citizens of the United States. It also happened to be the case that in order to be a United States Senator, you have to be a United States citizen for nine years. Blacks in America were not considered to be citizens until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868. That would mean Hiram Revels, at the age of 43, had only been an American citizen for less than two years. Questioning whether or not blacks are citizens of the United States is deeply rooted within a history of systematic discrimination, which was used to deny blacks rights. This is why when Mitt Romney says, in reference to President Obama, “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like,” and “Mr. President take your campaign of division of anger and hate back to Chicago” one must not only raise an eyebrow, but look through the pages of history to see what emotions may be elicited when using words such as “anger,” “hate” and the infamous phrase, “go back to where you came from,” which is what Romney is suggesting about president Obama’s taking his politics back to Chicago.
A similar sentiment can be found today with regards to Voter ID Laws. Throughout the history of the United States, voter laws were created and used in many cases to ensure blacks, and yes, poor whites, could not vote in places where they were the majority. These laws were often times justified and legislated under the code phrase “preventing voter fraud.” The idea was to create laws such as poll taxes (imposed taxes that were required before voting), literacy tests, and the Grandfather clause (If a man’s grandfather voted before 1867 then that man could vote). The intent of such legislation was clear – southern democrats did not want blacks to vote because they were afraid of an uprising from former slaves and free blacks. So, when an elected United States official, such as, Republican State Representative Mike Turzai says, in regards to strict Voter ID Laws, “Voter Id, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania” we have to search for the historical context of such laws as the laws relate to intent. In this case, using legislation to purposely suppress democratic turnout, is discriminatory.
Because of the progress America has made in its race relations, overt racism is less tolerable unless it is in it’s coded form. It is imperative for all of us to know, even when it’s uncomfortable, what types of legislation and language was used to discriminate against people, so, when the same language is used today, we know where the language and “code words” come from.