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Words Matter: ‘Race’ in American Campaign Rhetoric

by Augustine Agwuele.

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Augustine Agwuele is the author of the article “Culture Trumps Scientific Fact: ‘Race’ in US American Language” appearing in Volume: 60 Issue: 2 of Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice.


Momma she send me to school, I get educated

I get educated, so sophisticated

Not under-rated but really elevated

West African youths quickly appropriated this 1983 lyrical refrain of Eek-a-Mus as it aligns with the singular message about education flogged into them since kindergarten. Education liberates, elevates, promotes, empowers, and places one on a distinguished pedestal.

Words matter, and most certainly “race” matters. Words are the essence of the speaker, words express the content of the speakers’ character, virtue, beliefs and quite significantly, it is a summation of the values and ideals of the community of their belongingness. As this election cycle has shown, we hold up candidates to the content of their words and we ask voters to evaluate them by those things that they have said. Essentially, words matter, the lexical choices of a speaker\writer has consequences, especially with words of divisiveness like “race”.

For whatever reason, the concept and consciousness of “race” eluded me in Africa, where there was mostly inter-ethnic competition for dominance in the arbitrarily constructed nation-states. I learned of racism in Europe. Disappointedly, it is in the USA, the land of the free, that I truly cognized “race”; it is the one place where quite unexpectedly the language of “race” is obsessively wielded and thrust in my face. The habitual linguistic usage of “race” exalts it to an ideology that gives credence to laypeople’s biases (Makus 1990). While the politics of Otherness and visual profiling are present in all countries, I have been most confused by the language-use of the American academy and that of its’ products, and elites, that reveals not only a remarkable dissonance between scientific knowledge (fact) and cultural belief systems but also lays bare the tyrannical hold of culture in uniting, sustaining, and furthering obvious contradictions: in this case “race”. What Americans mean by “race” remains nebulous to me; is it skin color, or something else? From Harvard to the least famous university in the USA, there is anti-discrimination policy against: “an individual because of race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion….” Obviously “race” and color are not coterminous and this usage underscores my disillusionment at the ‘irrelevance’ of scholarly transmitted knowledge in the life of educated elites and opinion leaders whence the larger society draws it cues on social matters. To a mind not culturally American, and that is conscious of colonial history, it is difficult to acquiesce to the egregious disconnect between scientific education, and the eventual irrelevance of such educationally transmitted knowledge as is exemplified by “race”.

Every college textbook across the vast fields in humanities without equivocation agrees that the variations across humans, regardless of how they are parsed, do not amount to any degree of significance such that there is an identifiable subcategorization of Homo sapiens that constitutes biological races or deserves that appellation. Quite tellingly, despite the separation of scientific facts of biology from culture, and the careful exposition of the myths of “racial” superiority, these books revert to American customary usages of “race”, thereby giving credence to “race” and racism.

  • For instance, under the picture of the actress Halle Berry, Gezon and Kotta’ s write in their 2012 book: “A biracial American, Halle Berry, with her mother. What is Halle Berry’s race?”
  • Ferraro and Andreatta (2010: 301) captioning the image of President Obama in their textbook write, “Barack Obama is the son of a man from Kenya and a Caucassian woman from Kansas. What race is he?” They of course explicitly suggest that Ms. Berry and Mr. Obama are of different “race” than their parents, a factual impossibility.
  • President Barack Obama, with a law degree and a former professor, addressing the Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 2012 said “From Brazil to South Africa; from Turkey to South Korea; from India to Indonesia; people of different races, religions, and traditions have lifted millions out of poverty…”
  • In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice called for proposals to collect data[1] to “test the primary hypothesis that all other things being equal African Americans and other minorities are less likely to progress in the pardon adjudication process than applicants of other races”. The tacit understanding is that African Americans and other minorities are of different “races”
  • Jason Whitlock[2] writing for Fox Sports exclusive, describes one of Americas’ athletes as “fair-skin, mixed-race, drop-dead-beautiful Lolo Jones.”

Barack Obama is the son of a man from Kenya and a Caucassian woman from Kansas. What race is he?

Inherent in the concept of education is a process of being led out of ignorance unto knowledge, and of emancipation from the mystiques of tradition. Borne by education, modernism, through science, was to facilitate the scrubbing of superstitions, privilege rationality, and enthrone scientific facts.

As a codification of attitudes and behavioral expectations, “race” is perhaps useful to political actors. It sorts out those to target for exclusion or blame, those to exploit, and how to profit from the ensuing divisiveness. What is not disputable is that once the term is invoked, it elicits a studied, albeit subconscious, response: “Whites” are the owners of the land, the standard measure of all things America; they are the patriots and veterans, they are the leaders politically, judicially, and economically, they speak the correct language, they have the right religion, and the measure for beauty and lifestyle. These set parameters define the focus of dialogue especially with respect to those socio-judicial issues of gender, ethnicity, and class. This internalized view has roots, in part, in the form of dissonance between what scholars claim to teach and what is actually conveyed, as well as what elites model.

The way to end discrimination by race begins with ending the manufactured consents around it and its usage. “Race” is perhaps the only concept that scientists define and negate, the one notion that people disavow but embrace, and it is one of those terms that is more potent in its destructive power than many bombs. Whether used in isolation or substituted with equally Othering and discriminatory terms like people of color, racial minorities, the perpetual divide created by assumptions of ‘skin-color’ might invariably be our undoing as a nation. Perhaps one can be a little understanding towards those that do not know any better, but what do you make of make of the elites, the educated ones, the leaders, who not only know better but continue to exploit the crude term for social, economic and political expediency?

The importance of social heredity in the transmission of behavior, in the case of “race”, seems to consistently outweigh learned views regardless of how critical, scientific and rational those views are. Of course, the ability to cognize facts is given not only through education, but the configuration of character is largely meta-determined by culture. It is amazing to observe how the evoked culture (Daniel Nettle, 2009) is unperturbed by the weight of facts. Veridical terminology of race is overturned by customs; garnering collective agreement. The onus is on educated people, enlightened individuals, to provide responsible intellectual guidance to the society and to model such by a principled and rational existence that do not nullify their humanity or erase their membership of a community. A leader, e.g., educated elites cannot just acquiesce with the status quo, they should transcend neighborhood thinking and reflexes. A language use that reinforces the consciousness of our biological equality might alter the view and treatment meted out to others.

 


Augustine Agwuele is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Texas State University. An interdisciplinary scholar, he integrates conceptual rigors of theoretical linguistics with ethnographically grounded scholarship in socio-cultural analyses to address common and habitual practices, such as the variabilities associated with the production of speech segments and the cultural constancies that evolve different responses to life’s persistent concerns. He is the author of The Symbolism and Communicative Contents of Dreadlocks in Yorubaland (2016), the editor of Body Talk and Cultural Identity in the African World (2015) and co-editor of Essays in Speech Processes: Language Production and Perception (2016).


 

[1] BJS-2012-3353: 3. (http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/sepp_sol12.pdf accessed 08/13/12

[2] http://msn.foxsports.com/olympics/track/story/lolo-jones-serena-williams-defenders-need-to-stop-crying-about-critics-080812