By Lisa Brock, Senior Editor and Academic Director, Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership
Like many, my heart was broken upon hearing that 21 year-old Dylann Roof staked out the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and after sitting in prayer with the elderly and welcoming parishioners, yelled, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” On that tragic day, June 17, 2015, he methodically murdered nine people with the intent to kill more.
Because Roof was seen in photos linking his racist beliefs to the Confederate flag, because he slaughtered people in a church and because he killed a known and respected member of South Carolina’s State House of Representatives, the state’s politicians were finally shamed into heeding the four decades old call by black and progressive residents to remove the flag from the capitol grounds. After two days of emotional debate in the State House the flag was brought down on July 10, 2015 at 10 am.
State Representative Jenny Anderson Horne, a descendant of Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, said this in a raw and tearful plea as she pointed to black state representatives in the House Chambers:
“This flag offends my friend Mia McCloud, my friend John King, my friend Rev. Neal. I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.”
And she continued in her appeal, if this “is not done now, one is telling the widow of Senator Pickney and his two children that they do not matter…”
Significantly, she also said: “There is an economic prospect in Dorchester Country in jeopardy because we refuse to act.”
There had been a 15-year boycott against the state for flying the flag.
Semiotics and the Problem with Banned Symbols
While it is important to remove symbols of hate, we must be careful not to empower those symbols with the hate. Semiotics or semiology has long been the study of signs, symbols, and signification. It is the study of how meaning is created, and how texts, images, sounds, and yes, even flags stand for something else. According to Umberto Eco, every cultural phenomenon should be studied as a form of communication. Thus, what the Confederate/KKK flag communicated or “signified” is more important than the flag itself. So the question for all of us is this: will the removal of the flag deepen our understanding of racism, hate and guns or not?
Activist Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag.
We do have experience with this. For all intents and purposes the word “nigger” has been essentially banned from spoken and written mainstream discourse. While clearly the desire to not be belittled in public by hate speech is crucial to living together in an open society, the lack of deep study of the word’s historic function has led to some questionable twist and turns. In fact, the N-word’s outcast status is so bounded that my use of it here, even as a topic of discussion, is highly controversial. And this to me is tricky. We risk transferring the power of hate into a word or symbol, and leaving the ideology and the necessary unpacking of context and meaning unattended to.
For instance, a few years ago, there was a debate about Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn. The n-word appears 219 times in the novel. Some students, teachers, and parents of all races found it so discomforting and hurtful that they banned teaching the original text in their school districts. To them the word should never be used or read under any circumstances. Intriguingly, for those who wish to teach the text without the n-word, there is an Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth Books that has printed an edition in which the n-word is replaced with “slave.” Many educators and parents have opted to use this version.
Importantly, though, other teachers and scholars argue that Twain used the n-word for a reason and that intention needs to be explored. To this set of stakeholders, setting and history matter and one’s discomfort actually provides invaluable teaching moments. Professor David Bradley agrees and thinks the text should never be altered. He maintains that it is not the word that is hurtful but the persons who used it and continue to promote hate. He makes a distinction between Hip Hop artists use of it, as they are not communicating hate but being provocative about its outcast status.
President Obama said as much when he appeared on the Marc Maron “WTF” podcast on June 22, 2015, just five days after the Charleston Massacre. “We’re not cured of it [racism],” he said. “And it’s not just a matter of not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.” Obama concludes, “It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 or 300 years prior.” In other words, it will take a lot more work to change 300 years of history.
While many understood why Obama spoke the n-word out loud, he was critiqued for doing so by a vocal group of pundits on Fox News and CNN. His choice of words was “not befitting of a president,” Elisabeth Hasselbeck, said. Ironically, yet, not surprisingly, she and her colleagues were completely silent on his analysis of racism today. They are also the same pundits who more often than not support conservative and anti-black polices and slam Hip Hop artists. The n-word for them has become their red herring. As Demetria Irwin of theGrio wrote, “If you’re freaking out over Obama using the n-word then you’re [likely] part of the problem.”
Fox television owners, anchors and conservative pundits represent an important constituency, though. They do not use the n-word in public; yet understand racism’s function very well, which is to mobilize a targeted white public against “the other.”
A key progenitor of this line of thinking was Republican Party chairman and successful political strategist, Lee Atwater, who in 1981 gave a now infamous interview to political scientist Alexanders Lamis on the Republican Party’s southern strategy. He said, among other things, “you start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’….By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff….” In a 1988 interview with Sidney Blumenthal he explained how he used a racially coded “populism” against the “establishment” of liberal government to mobilize southern racists. He then told Blumenthal boastfully, “I know how to play it.”
Atwater is credited with using the iconic image of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts inmate who was convicted of robbery, assault and rape while out on a prison furlough program. Because democratic candidate Michael Dukakis supported the furlough program, Horton, the scary black “rapist,” became, according to Atwater, Dukakis’ running mate. This strategy was deployed to great success during George HW Bush’s campaign in 1990. In 2000, George W. Bush won the South Carolina primary over John McCain partly by defending the flying of the Confederate flag as an issue of states’ rights, an axiom first wrapped by Atwater.
Rapists, Drugs, Them and Us
Business mogul Donald Trump announced that he was running for the US presidency on June 16, 2015, just one day before the Charleston Massacre. He did so at Trump Tower with a fifty-one minute speech; he began his remarks with these words:
Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating. China in a trade deal? They kill us. When did we beat Japan at anything?.…They beat us all the time. When do we beat Mexico at the border?.…They are not our friend, believe me….When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Since uttering these words, Trump has stayed in the news. He was soundly criticized by members of the Latino community and lost business affiliations because of his remarks. Others, however, have found his views so appealing that he has risen to the top in Republican opinion polls.
While clearly a blowhard, Trump is a student of Lee Atwater, at least in this speech, and engages in what Ian Hedley López calls Dog Whistle Politics. First coined in the late 1980s by Richard Morin and William Saffire, Dog Whistle Politics involves sending coded political messages to a targeted group for whom it especially resonates. The analogy to a dog whistle is important because it’s a high-frequency whistle heard by dogs (some) but inaudible to humans (others). Donald Trump sent a racially coded message to his base, while soothing those who choose not to “hear” the message with a declaration later that he is not racist.
Let’s analyze this part of his speech. He starts with a scare tactic: the country is in “serious [economic and social] trouble.” He tells his largely white audience that the reason for this is that China, Japan and Mexico (countries of color) economically “kill us,” and “beat us” and are “not our friend.” Mexico sends “us” rapists, criminals and drug mules. “They are not sending you,” he tells his audience, making a distinction between the them and us. He sends out a clarion call for “victory” against this national invasion and global economic take over.
While Trump is whipping up fear of, and blame on “the other,” for the economic ills of the US, his words were also eerily similar to that of Dylann Roof. As noted above, Roof said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go” as he was shooting the women and men at the church. What is astounding is how few political commentators made the connection between what Trump said and called for and what Dylann Roof said and did. Interestingly, Atwater deployed the Willie Horton as rapist trope in that 1990 election. Stoking the image of the black/brown rapist, as a way to control the bodies of white women and people of color has a long and vile history in the US. Discourse analysis, which is akin to semiotics, illustrates quite clearly that there is a “language system of thought” over time and “language behaviors linked to social practices,” in operation here.
One commentator, Alberto Ciurana, an executive at Univision did make such a connection on his Instagram account. He was roundly attacked by various news sources. Hypocritically, but not surprisingly, Michael Cohen, special counsel to Trump said that Ciurana was “totally insensitive:”
There are no words to describe Alberto Ciurana’s despicable and horrific decision to place Mr. Trump beside this racist murderer,” said Cohen. “It was a totally insensitive act and I would call for his immediate resignation from Univision.”
Neither Cohen nor any of the fifteen other Republican candidates said much in response to Trump’s ridicule of Mexicans, the Chinese, and the Japanese and later in the speech the Middle East. According to Raul Reyes of USA Today, “His fellow candidates and the Republican National Committee have not called him out for his bigotry. The collective Republican response to Trump is mostly silence.” In the words of MSNBC commentator, Chris Matthews, Trump was simply trying to mobilize his base.
 Umberto Eco, Semiotics and thePhilosophy of Language, Indiana University Press, 1986.
 Transcript of Donald Trump Speech, Washington Post, June 16, 2015
 Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press, 2015.