Last night, while President Donald Trump was keeping up his attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color at a rally in North Carolina, Merriam-Webster tweeted out that the most searched term in its online dictionary at that time was racism.
It’s been that kind of week—though hardly the first of its nature in the Trump era—when bigoted comments from the president have dominated the national discourse, and have led many to label the remarks as racist. That includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats (along with a few Republicans) in the House of Representatives, who passed a nonbinding resolution denouncing Trump’s “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib should “go back” to “help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” before leveling criticism at the U.S. government. (It shouldn’t have to be stated that three of the four congresswomen are American-born. The fourth, Omar, is a naturalized citizen from Somalia, and was targeted with chants of “Send her back!” at Trump’s rally.)
All of this has led to reappraisals in many quarters about how to apply the words racist and racism, which helps explain all those dictionary lookups. Those seeking guidance from the Merriam-Webster entry would find racism first defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” More broadly, it is defined as “racial prejudice or discrimination.”
But does deferring to a dictionary definition suffice in judging whether Trump’s comments should be called racist? The Fox News analyst Brit Hume claimed on Twitter that the comments, while “nativist, xenophobic, [counterfactual] and politically stupid … simply do not meet the standard definition of racist.” Soon after Hume linked to Merriam-Webster’s entry for the term, the dictionary’s Twitter account helpfully pointed to the entry’s usage note, which counsels that “when discussing concepts like racism … it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”
Indeed, the word racism cannot be encapsulated by a single, decontextualized definition, as it is a term that is fraught with moral implications for its use. News outlets have publicly grappled with terminological issues this week. NPR, for instance, has decided to refer to Trump’s tweets as “racist,” and not simply “racially charged” or “racially insensitive,” as it has in the past. As the organization’s standards-and-practices editor, Mark Memmott, explained on NPR’s Code Switch podcast, the judgment was made to use the term because Trump’s “Go back to where you came from” rhetoric clearly fits into a tradition of racist tropes. But in an op-ed, Keith Woods, NPR’s vice president of newsroom diversity and training, continued to object to journalists using the word racist, because “we should not be in the business of moral labeling.”
Despite the “moral labeling” objections of Woods and others, the view that the terms racist and racism should be off-limits in objective journalistic reporting has waned over the course of Trump’s term in office. Back in January 2018, when Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries” (or was it “shithouse countries”?) in a discussion of immigration policy with lawmakers at the White House, NPR decided to avoid using racist in its reports. At the time, Memmott explained on Code Switch that rather than “telling people to think about what someone did or said and labeling it,” the preferable course of action is “giving them the facts—giving them the action words so that they can decide for themselves.”
On the same podcast, Phillip Atiba Goff, an African American psychologist who heads the Center for Policing Equity at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, pushed back on what he sees as evasive language when reporting on Trump’s comments. “The one that absolutely makes me lose my mind is racially charged. No, it wasn’t,” Goff said. “It was racist.”
Thanks to debates such as this, racially charged was voted the 2018 Euphemism of the Year, a dubious distinction awarded by the American Dialect Society (ADS) as part of its Words of the Year selection process. (As the chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee, I oversaw the voting at the society’s annual meeting in January.)
Jessi Grieser, a sociolinguist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who focuses on the use of African-American English in expressions of identity, advocates for the selection. “There’s a long history of white Americans being more afraid to be called racist than to do and say racist things, and taking away the sting is exactly the linguistic function of a euphemism,” Grieser explains. “Racially charged doesn’t hurt people’s feelings, but it’s important to recognize that it’s usually just substituting for racist and generally doesn’t have [a] separate meaning on its own.”
That viewpoint was embraced in March by the editors of The Associated Press Stylebook, who advised, “Do not use racially charged or similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.”
Nicole Holliday, a sociolinguist at Pomona College who studies the construction of racial and ethnic boundaries through language, supports the ADS’s selection of racially charged as Euphemism of the Year and has been keeping tabs on such phraseology since then. She says she was “pleasantly shocked” to hear NPR refer to Trump’s “racist remarks” this week. While she applauds the direct language, Holliday notes that euphemisms such as racially charged seem “designed to appeal to moderates, as a sort of ‘diet racism’ … Calling the tweets outright racist causes people on the right and some moderates to totally shut down, but I think calling them racially charged allows some space for plausible deniability.”
This kind of plausible deniability is not particularly new. As Daniel Engber wrote in an explainer for Slate last year, racially charged has been deployed as a journalistic substitute for racist for decades. While the phrase originally described the atmosphere generated by racial tensions of the late 1950s and 1960s, particularly around the racist treatment of African Americans in the South, over time it became a kind of stand-in for racist itself. With racism becoming a more divisive term as the fight for civil rights intensified, media outlets preferred to keep the word at arm’s length.
Then as now, accusations of racism were met with furious denials. When Trump avers, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” he echoes a standard refrain dating back to at least the ’60s. When California’s Democratic governor Pat Brown was facing a tough reelection fight against Ronald Reagan in 1966, he sought to counteract what one news report called the “white backlash” against “racial unrest” in Watts and Oakland by telling reporters, “My own 84-year-old mother, and there isn’t a racist bone in her body, is frightened.” (Brown lost the general election, and Reagan’s political career was born.)
The notion that calling someone’s words or actions racist is character assassination was on full display on the House floor this week. When Pelosi spoke in favor of the resolution calling Trump’s comments racist, Representative Doug Collins of Georgia and his fellow Republicans sought to strike Pelosi’s comments from the record, based on an obscure House rule dictating that a member cannot refer to the president or any of his statements as racist during a floor debate. The provision, which was adopted by the then-Republican-controlled House in 2017, is written into a manual for parliamentary procedure first introduced by Thomas Jefferson, who adapted English protocols that prohibited members of Parliament from speaking “irreverently or seditiously” about the king.
All of this speaks to the cultural power invested in the words racist and racism, far beyond what any dictionary will tell you. But as long as people treat these words as a kind of political dynamite, too dangerous to wield in applicable situations, discussing the hard truths of racism will remain exceedingly difficult. Can aversion to racist practices themselves take precedence over aversion to those practices being called racist? Not while the current president is busy rallying his base with bigotry.