Growing up, I’d be riding with someone and as we drove through a parking lot, the person may look at a Cadillac or a car that was not parked correctly and say, “Gotta be a Democrat.” Or, while waiting in line somewhere, a person might say, “Look at that Canadian acting like that.” In each of these cases, the speaker attempted to code their racist language by using “Democrat” or “Canadian” instead of “n*****.” The words become a way for the person to shrug off their racism, saying, “I wasn’t referring to Black people. I was using the terms as a joke.” It seems innocuous, but we know it’s not. It’s deliberate coding to cover deliberate hate.
When we encounter words, we bring our own ideas and thoughts to them. Thus, a word can mean different things to different people, even when they see the same text. As such, we know that words are powerful because they do not just relate a denotative meaning; instead, they tap into connotations that have grown within us over the years. So, when we see words such “black” or “white” we immediately bring years of baggage alongside us as we read those words. Understanding this is important, especially when parsing out rhetoric that uses words to stoke fears and sow division amongst individuals.
We see this in action everywhere, but recently a specific incident jumped out that I want to look at briefly. Last week, former President Trump had a video announcement where he speaks about his educational policies for his next presidential run. He states that he will cut federal funding to schools or programs that push “critical race theory, gender ideology or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto our children.” A few things stand out here. One, CRT and gender ideology have become buzzwords, hollow words that exist as stand ins and code for anything that runs counter to the Republican agenda. We saw this when Cristopher Rufo laid out the plan for weaponizing CRT without ever defining it for the audience.
Trump also claims that he will call upon the DOJ and DOE to investigate “any school district that has engaged in raced-based discrimination.” On the surface, this is good because we do not want anyone discriminated against based on their race. However, the undercurrent is not good. Trump does not mention discrimination against whites here. That would be too obvious. Instead, he follows up that statement by saying, “That includes discrimination against Asian Americans.” This statement hints at the Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina Supreme Court cases. These lawsuits challenge race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and UNC by claiming that the schools violate Title VI by penalizing Asian American applicants. Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist, founded Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) and brought the suits. He also had roles in previous suits such as Fisher v. University of Texas where the Supreme Court upheld the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policies.
Through the use of “Asian Americans” in his statement, Trump is pulling on the law suits and also performing coded language. The reference gives him cover because he addresses supposed discrimination against Asian Americans in admissions processes. This becomes easy because he also plays into the model minority myth, using Asian Americans as indicators of hard working individuals who want to succeed. He doesn’t mention Blacks, Hispanics, or other groups, but that does not mean that they are not there in the connotations rattling around within the heads of listeners. In this set up, “Asian Americans” provide cover and a dog whistle all in the same breath.
Along with this, Trump also mentions that any “inappropriate” material presented to “our children” will serve as an impetus for defunding. Now, the question becomes, what is “inappropriate.” Who determine what is “inappropriate”? Again, this boils down to vague wording that allows people to bring their own definition of “inappropriate” to the word. In this case, though, Trump makes it clear later when he says, “The Marxism being preached in our schools is also totally hostile to Judeo-Christian teachings, and in many ways its resembling an established new religion.” Taking aside the use of “Marxism,” which has a lengthy history of being used as a scare word, Trump lays out that “inappropriate” is anything that goes against “Judeo-Christian” values or what certain individuals perceive those values to be.
On top of the “inappropriate” material, Trump also plays the victim card here with the concluding phrase that what’s being taught in schools resembles a new religion, presumably one that will overrun Christianity. This is a scare tactic, and it is one that goes against what we see in the halls of government. In its biennial report on the religious composition of congress, the PEW Research Center wrote that even though the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped in the general population from 78% to 63% since 2007, “Christians make up 88% of the voting members of the new 118th Congress being sworn in on Jan. 3 — only a few percentage points lower than the Christian share of Congress in the late 1970s.”
Trump continues, “We can’t let this happen. For this reason, my administration will aggressively pursue intentional violations to the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the Constitution.” To do this, Trump says he will, on day one, “begin to find and remove the radical zealots and Marxists who have infiltrated the Federal Department of Education.” This language relies on scare words to justify actions that sound extremely reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the early 1930s after they rose to power and began to purge the universities. (I do not have time to dive into this, but a good source is Saul Firedlander’s Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933–1939.)
At the end, Trump says that the major problem is that “we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids.” Again, coded language appears here. The use of “pink-haired” attacks LGBTQ individuals and linking it with “communists” presents them as running counter to the United States and its ideals. It’s a way of stoking fear and creating division through the use of coded words that draw upon a treasure trove of connotations we encounter day in and day out through the media and elsewhere. As well, its dangerous because, as we know, it creates an us versus them dichotomy that has physical and psychological consequences.
No matter what language we encounter, we need to be able to think about it critically. We do come to the table with connotations, and we must ask ourselves, where do those connotations come from? What do they mean? Are they real? Are they there to create fear within us? As well, we must know history. I could go on and on, as others have and I have before, about how this rhetoric surrounding education does nothing more than create a populace that does not think critically and engage with the world. I could go on and on about how all the platitudes calling upon us to remove politics from education are disingenuous because no matter what we do politics encroaches there from the legislative decisions to syllabus creation.
However, I think the main point we need to work on is the critical engagement with rhetoric. We fail to do so at our own peril. What are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.