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Obama, Clinton and the language of racism

By James Rose - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2008

There’s a lot of racism out there. As the US presidential campaign runs its excruciating course, the race issue, centred on comments about and by Democrat contender Barrack Obama and his backers, bubbles up like a leak from a subterranean well. Its direction tells us a lot about the vaunted and troublesome language of power.

There is a word, “racism”, and there is an ideology. They are not necessarily compatible. The tension between them attests to the fact that while words have an extraordinarily valuable role as signifiers, they cannot be said to stand for anything more than the air, which projects them, unless they are embedded within the vital component of context.

Without context, a word is like an anchor without a ship, sinking quickly and going nowhere.


Racism, for those that need reminding, is an institutionalised, often multigenerational, form of abuse and vilification. It is not the delivery of a single word. It is not the utterance of a hasty sentence or two. Yet, such unanchored text has become the basis of the looming race war in the US presidential primaries.

At the core of the Clinton v Obama race debate is a memo prepared by one Amaya Smith, a press secretary for the “Obama for America” campaign. In it, Smith takes issue with various comments made by the Clintons and the lady senator’s supporters. Most of these, like the use of the term “shuck and dive [sic]” to describe Obama’s campaigning style, have been highlighted as potential racist barbs which could be used against Hillary Clinton if/when things get dirty, i.e. now.

For such a powerful word as racism to be cast about in response to these tenuous links to the ideology is bigotry with a different shirt.

In truth, even seemingly “racist” words delivered without context (tone, time, place etc) carry, or should carry, little meaning. Calling someone, say, a nigger in South Africa 50 years ago, in the US 30 years ago and in Australia today would be understood differently each time, and carry different ramifications, based on the context of the moment. Not all uses could be considered racist.

This tangle of words, context and meaning is not an isolated case and in fact stands for a very real and very common problem in human relationships at all levels. The politicisation of language is not a phenomenon isolated to our era, yet it has today reached sophistication hitherto unseen. This has, in turn served to strip language of its nuance and depth.

This process has placed much of the emphasis on words in isolation as the language of power has sought to deconstruct language and separate words from their context. This has led to the construction of a more “rational” communication format, one where words stand alone, not as signs but as structures in their own right, and are therefore more readily applicable to the straight-line science of power and the blinkered needs of politics.


Doing so makes it easy for those with power games on their mind to generate or validate, quick judgments and sound-bite strategising. Such tactics can give those dealing in political currency the ability to snap the news cycle in their direction.

If the language of racism is the language of power, then the word itself is even more so, and even more powerful. It’s a process of linguistic colonisation that attests to the very power of words and the political power they convey in a world devoid of context.

Taken as a snapshot of a nation, the emergence of the racist card in this way in America only further underlines the puerile nature of politics and the assault on language that power undertakes.

The extent to which Obama, particularly as a man of demonstrable culture and learning, cleaves to the nominally anti-racist strategy is a measurement of his social and cultural wisdom. It is also an indication as to the influence he has over his many advisors, a telling test for a future president.

Evidence so far suggests he is floundering to now remove an issue he has fought hard to downplay. If he fails, he will bear some responsibility. But, the bigger foe is the politicisation of language, where much of our media and political discourse, the language of modern power, falls into the category of irresponsible textual bombing raids, throwing explosive words about like hand grenades, removing the pin of context before doing so, for maximum effect.

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About the Author

James Rose is founder of the The Kick Project, an Australian football and development-based not-for-profit.

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