Was It Racist for Palin to Accuse Obama of 'Shuck and Jive'?

Sarah Palin condemned President Obama's response to the attacks in Benghazi as a "shuck and jive shtick" in a note on her Facebook page Wednesday.

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Sarah Palin condemned President Obama's response to the attacks in Benghazi as a "shuck and jive shtick" in a note on her Facebook page Wednesday. This seemed so obviously overtly racist that The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted, "Palin's use of 'shuck and jive' isn't an example of a racist dog-whistle because it's too obviously racist to be considered code." But when it came time for everyone to explain why it was racist, many struggled. (Mediabistro, for example, block quoted a section of the 2010 book  What Can You Say?: America’s National Conversation on Race, which discussed the time Andrew Cuomo used the phrase. But that just listed two bloggers linking to two dictionary definitions, and one blogger linking to Yahoo Answers. So we at The Atlantic Wire thought we've give a brief primer on what shucking and jiving means and whether it's racist for white people to use the phrase to describe black people.

1. It does come from black slang.

The origin of "shuckin' and jivin'" according to Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, published in 1989, is in shucking corn, and refers to using words and performance to decieve and manipulate. Some sources say it started in the slavery days, others say it's from jazz in the 1930s. But all say it started as black slang.

2. It means lying.

For example, the Rev. Cecil Williams used it in a December 1970 article in The Black Scholar titled, "Black Folks Are Not for Sale." Williams wrote, "The church is shuckin' and jivin'. By shuckin' and jivin' I simply mean talking out of both sides of its mouth."

3. But it also means making yourself look subservient to authority figures.

In 1990's Ribbin', Jivin', and Playin' the Dozens: The Persistent Dilemma in Our SchoolsHerbert L. Foster explains:

Shuckin' and jivin' is a verbal and physical technique some blacks use to avoid difficulty, to accommodate some authority figure, and in the extreme, to save a life or to save oneself from being beaten physically or psychologically. Gestures, facial expressions, speech pronunciation, and body poses are all used to provide the authority figure with the appearance deemed acceptable and subservient to placate him. Shuckin' and jivin' also often requires an ability to control and conceal one's true emotions.

4. And it does often refer to communication between blacks and whites.

Foster says jiving plays off the expectations of white people. He cites this passage from Eldridge Cleaver's book Soul on Ice, when Cleaver is pulled over by a cop for running a red light.

'Say, Boy,' he said to me, 'are you color-blind?' I didn't want a ticket so I decided to talk him out of it. I went into my act, gave him a big smile and explained to him that I was awfully sorry, that I thought that I could make it but that my old car was too slow. He talked real bad to me, took me on a long trip about how important it was that I obeyed the laws and regulation and how else can a society be controlled and administered without obedience to the law. I said a bunch of Yes Sir's and he told me to run along and be a good boy.

And here's an example from the book Airtight Willie & Me by Iceberg Slim, the assumed name of Robert Beck, a former Chicago pimp whose books were turned into blaxploitation films: "I was having one bitch kitty of a time tuning out the interracial sewer mouth shucking and jiving and playing the 'dozens' from cell to cell on our tier."

And here's an example from the Associated Press on April 3, 1987, when there was controversy in the South Carolina state senate over whether to accept invitations from segregated clubs. (Yes, I know: 1987!) State Sen. Kay Patterson, who is black, sponsored a controversial resolution to stop accepting those invites, and said, "Let's stop shucking and jiving. I brought you a simple resolution. All it says is that we will not accept invitations to any segregated clubs. What's so bad about that?" (State Sen. Charlie Powell, who was white, responded by referring to the Black Caucus and saying that if Patterson "would permit whites to join his club then I'll also vote to let blacks come join our clubs.")

And here is The Washington Post on March 2, 1979, on the Harlem Globetrotters:

Beloved as the Trotters are, they persistently hear the charge -- muttered usually, occasionally printed -- that their whole act is pure shucking and jiving, Uncle Tomism, just another version of Amos 'n' Andy.

If the Trotters are not reinforcing invidious black stereotypes -- poor speech, bad grammar, shambling walk -- then why are crowds in New York and Washington more than 90 percent white?

5. White people do use it innocently.

White House press secretary James Carney used it during a press conference in September 2011, saying, "Sorry. I'm going to shuck and jive! Time to shuck and jive" because he brought the wrong notebook. The Twitter handle @shuckandjive belongs to a Presbyterian minister named John Shuck, who also runs a blog at the url ShuckandJive.org. He writes about wholesome things like "Autumn Leaves."

A lot of politicians who publicly use racist terms like this -- Michele Bachmann once said Obama was "waving a tar baby in the air" with an energy proposal, for example— are often from really white places in the Midwest and Northwest and may be unaware that terms like "cakewalk" have racial Southern roots. Maybe they don't really know the history? (When the former governor of Mississippi favorably refers to White Citizens Councils, on the other hand, he has no such excuse.)

6. But whites have used it racially.

If you do not have any unenlightened relatives to give you an example of this, here are a couple: The Miami Herald reported on April 4, 1991 that a Sarasota nightclub banned black people from coming in. Roger Shaw, the co-owner, told the newspaper, "We've found so many problems... We wound up with 30-40 people just shucking and jiving outside with no intention of coming in. They also viciously attacked people with regularity." In 1990, the National Labor Relations Board banned a lawyer for a year when he accused the prosecutor, who was black, of "shucking and jiving," USA Today reported on August 6, 1997.

You can see why a term that often is used to mean black people showing insincere subservience to whites might sound bad when used by a white person to describe a black person. (Think about how Bill White, the black All-Star first baseman who went on to become the president of the National League, can title his autobiography Uppity, but that word sounds very different when used by a white guy to refer to the first African-American First Lady of the United States.) Since Sarah Palin has no problem accusing people of lying, she should stick to a straightforward term like that next time.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.