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The New Political Language of Race


One of the memorable features of 1984 will be the political language that passed for an analysis of Presidential elections. Professors and pundits were particularly resourceful in their use of political language: The only group to vote solidly Democratic was held responsible for the Party’s failure. The Democratic Party’s overwhelming defeat was attributed to its enormous success with black people. This political feat was made plausible by the simple expedient of linguistic reclassification. Black people ceased to be a cultural or “interest group” in 1984. They became, instead, a “special interest.”

The new political language of racial politics communicates two seemingly contradictory messages in one language: The black community is told its salient issues are low priority items. The language used to say it, however, enables the speaker to sound neither racist nor conservative. Democratic Party spokespeople are therefore able to keep a straight face when they tell their most loyal constituency to lay low, lay off, or take a back seat to party defectors. Thus, at the very moment when black people are positioned to demand their share of center stage in American politics, sociologists and political scientists are helping to develop a rationale for keeping them backstage, or in the wings.

This essay explores the intellectual activities that contribute to the new political language. It focuses on two questions: 1) How and why black people became a special interest and what difference it makes? 2) What is the sociological analysis that reclassifies affirmative action as “reverse discrimination”? Together, these two activities provide the formula for minimizing priority items on the black political agenda with a language that sounds neither racist nor neo-conservative.

Note: This working paper was originally published by the Institute for the Study of Social Change, now the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. It was subsequently published in Socialist Review, vol. 16, no. 3 & 4, May-August 1986.

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