Why Do Media Use Semantic Somersaults When It Comes To Race?

Written by Ann Brown

According to Boston Review writer Lawrence B. Glickman, America’s current use of the English language is political racist. We dance around race, he wrote. How? Instead of calling something outright “racist” we will instead say something like  “racially tinged,” “race-based,” “racial undercurrents,” “racial animosity,” “racial fringes,” “racial attacks,” “racial connotations,” and even “racial fears.” We don’t use these same adjectives when talking about sexism, for example.

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“Why the semantic somersaults when it comes to race? We never hear anti-Semitic rhetoric described as ‘religiously tinged,’ and although the Boston Globe once referred to Trump’s ‘gender-tinged attack on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton” during the spring of 2016, it was nearly alone in doing so. Imagine if, after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape became public, the press had referred to Trump’s ‘gender-tinged’ comments or claimed that he had “escalated” gender or that he was a ‘gender provocateur’? Such phrases turn oppression into a neutral condition. ‘Gender-tinged,’ for example, suggests the infusion of gender into an issue but ignores the question of power—in Trumpian terms, of who grabs whom,” Glickman wrote.

So when did we become so hesitant when talking about race? Glickman says it starting during the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, increased in the late twentieth century, and has been rampant since 2010. According to historian Barbara J. Fields, we started substituting the word “racism” for “race,” which in other words “transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of an object.”


By adding describing like “tinged” or “charged” “suggests that race can be overemphasized and exaggerated, but elides the fact that any biological notion of race is a fiction, while racism is a very real language of power,” Glickman wrote.  

These descriptives also point to race hierarchy, power, and privilege.

But languages wasn’t always like this. Back in 1956, for instance, Georgia senator Herman Talmadge during an interview proudly described himself “an advocate of ‘White Supremacy’.” He and his southern white peers were not afraid to use racist language. Also, during the  1948 breakaway States’ Rights Democrats convention, Strom Thurmond, representing South Carolina, said: “There’s not enough troops in the army, to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Thurmond obviously did not feel the need to cover up his racism.

During the civil rights movement, most white politicians shied away from race and discussing race. The media followed suit.

FILE – In this Oct. 2, 1957, file photo, the first black students to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., leave the building and walk toward a waiting Army station wagon following their classes. Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, marks the 60th anniversary of when nine black students enrolled at the Arkansas school. One of the nine students is obscured by another student in this photograph. (AP Photo/Ferd Kaufman, File)

“One of the best examples of the journalistic shift can be seen in 1957, the same year as Thurmond’s filibuster, when Little Rock’s Central High School became the site of the nation’s most iconic battle over school desegregation. In October of that year, many newspapers carried an Associated Press story about the ‘racially tinged’ actions of a group called the ‘Segregationist League of Central High Mothers.’ While not necessarily causal, this moment represents a hinge: opposition to the civil rights movement was increasingly described by journalists as ‘racially tinged’ rather than ‘racist,’” Glickman wrote.

But suing “color-blind” words actually reinforces racism.