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The Coded Language Of Privilege

The very privileged once marginalized people of color, anyone poor and most women by simply entering the boardroom, cigar den or private car. But as whiteness created its own cachet and more non-whites became cashy, the rich and snotty weren’t content to talk behind closed doors, they seemed to want the depth of their disdain known, and they wanted deniability. This begat the coded language of privilege that permeates our national, local and office politics today.

There is a decades-long political tradition of using welfare as code for the lazy and the fruitful who avoid work and make babies to game the system. When former governor Mitt Romney runs for president with a campaign ad claiming that President Barack Obama is trying to “gut” the 1996 Welfare Reform Act “by dropping work requirements,” he is signaling to his base that the African American president is letting African American people steal everyone else’s hard earned tax money. At the same time, Romney can deny any such race-based meaning or purpose—he is merely contesting welfare policy.

In his August 20 press conference, Obama rightly called Romney’s ad “patently false.” He would have been within his rights to chide him for raising the specter of the angry black man, as Romney did at an August 14 rally in Ohio: “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like.… His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51 percent of the pieces.… Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.… ”

Romney railed against “wild and reckless accusations” and a phrase used at an earlier rally in Virginia by Vice President Joe Biden, who said that the GOP plan to ease Wall Street regulations would “put y’all back in chains.” Romney surrogates jumped all over the words chains and y’all, and the fact that there were many African Americans in the audience, essentially accusing Biden of using racial code and being outrageous. Biden shot back, “If you want to know what’s outrageous, it’s their policies and the effects of their policies on middle-class America.” He also pointed out that Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), had used unshackle in terms of the economy.

Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, has held his party’s line against Obama’s initiatives, prompting the president to say, “They’ve tried to sell us this trickle-down fairy dust before.” A leading opponent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, intended to stimulate the tanking economy, Ryan denied ever asking for stimulus money for his district “because it doesn’t work.” Shortly after his rollout as Romney’s veep pick on August 11, four letters surfaced that he wrote in 2009 to the Energy and Labor secretaries on behalf of two companies in his backyard; together they received about $21 million in stimulus funds. Later on the stump, Ryan said that, of the three presidents he has served under, he has not seen “bitter and partisan rhetoric like the kind we have today.”

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Ryan’s social agenda also came under intense scrutiny when Representative Todd Akin’s August 19 statements on KTVI-TV about “legitimate rape” went viral: “From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin (R-Missouri) has been making laws for a dozen years, some of them from the Armed Services, Budget and Science, Space and Technology committees. GOP voters picked him to challenge Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) for her Senate seat.

Akin’s “legitimate rape” phrase reminded many that he co-sponsored bills in 2011 and 2009 that would have established a new legal category of rape: “forcible rape.” Ryan, too, co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act and they both signed onto the bills on the first day they were introduced. (They were joined by more than 200 others, including all six members from the other Washington scandal that broke the same week—the ones who splashed and boozed it up in the Sea of Galilee on the Republicans’ Holy Land junket.)

The “forcible rape” bill proposed that earlier listed prohibitions against abortion-related funding, benefits or services would not apply “if the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape.…” Ryan and Akin also co-sponsored the controversial Sanctity of Human Life Act, known as the “personhood” bill, which proposes a single cell should have all the legal rights that protect a woman. There were more than 60 co-sponsors of the proposal in 2011 and 2009.

“Rape is rape,” said Obama, breaking through all codes. “The idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people.… ” 0

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than 1 million acres of land, is president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C.