Sarah Palin’s Linguistic Trap: or, How to Score Off Your Colleague’s Mistakes

Subtle racism is a funny thing. When Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” I think we all reasonably understood that he meant one of two things, orpossibly both. First, that the economy tanked on Obama’s watch, which isn’t really fair, but a Republican trope nonetheless. And second, we thought he might be trying to use Obama’s race to equate him with the urban poor, largely dependent on food stamps, and indulge the background racism we so commonly see in the Republican base.

The genius of Gingrich’s line is that, like the best examples of “dog-whistle” racism, it can be interpreted as but does not depend for its existence on a harmful stereotype, like “lots of urban African Americans are on food stamps.” Overly sensitive? Maybe. But the best statesmen — something no-one has ever accused Gingrich of being — tend to avoid integrating background stereotypes into their speech, even by accident. So, adding to the candidate’s terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-week, we called Gingrich on it.

Enter Sarah Palin, the natural defender of rhetorical temperance. Responding to David Gregory, who also called Gingrich on it:

[David Gregory] made it sound like that if you’re black you’re on food stamps and the president is referring to you being on food stamps. I think that’s racist. And you know, enough is enough of this calling out, this racism, these false charges.

Beautiful. By acknowledging the premise at the right moment, Sarah makes it sound like, if Newt’s comment implied racism, it’s only because of Gregory’s built-in prejudices. But isn’t this how language works? We express symbols which conjure, in the listener, separate images depending on background cultural meaning. Isn’t it the speaker’s job — not the listener’s — to avoid linguistic landmines? If Newt had used the “n-word,” would it be Gregory’s fault, too, for associating the world with a negative portrayal of African Americans, even if it’s a portrayal that Gregory did not himself believe?

Who knows. But if we needed any further proof on this point, it should now be clear: Palin’s ignorance on things that matter is matched only by her truly impressive talent for sophistry.


  1. Complaints about “dog-whistle racism” do not impress me. Let’s say they’re accurate and there really is secret racism underlying them (I don’t think that’s usually the case, but whatever). They seem to me to fall into that category of trivial racism that undermines claims that racism is inherently terrible.

    Basically, my thought process is “Overly sensitive? Yes, so fuck anybody who thinks that way.”

  2. Basically, I think race is irrelevant and nobody, regardless of race, deserves food stamps or other social aid benefits because no race is an excuse for failure and worthlessness. A successful black is equal to a successful white and a failed black is equal to a failed black and the failed are not the equals of the successful and it does not matter what percentage of any race succeeds or fails because race does not matter and is an arbitrary social construct anyway. A failure is a failure is a failure is a shoulddie and a success is a success is a success is a should be rewarded. The end.

    1. Erik J · ·

      Well, sure, if you think that there’s no institutional racism at work.

      Unfortunately, if you believe that, you are wrong.

      1. Ah, yes, “institutional racism”, the excuse trotted out by the worthless members of a minority to explain why they can’t succeed the same way the decent members of the same minority did.

        1. Erik J · ·

          If there’s no such thing as institutional racism, why is it the case that minorities are proportionally underrepresented — significantly so — in the academy, in the upper echelons of business, and in the legal profession?

  3. “…and indulge the background racism we so commonly see in the Republican base.’

    I know plenty of people in the Republican base, myself included. No racism. On the flip side I know a lot of blue collar Democrats who still like the N-word.

    You’re statement is just nonsense, but of course you knew that when you wrote it.

    Also, 43% of the people receiving food stamps are white, so it seems like Ginrich wasn’t necessarily talking about blacks, was he?

    1. Erik J · ·

      I know plenty of people in the Republican base, myself included. No racism

      Yeah, that’s false.

      You’re statement is just nonsense

      Well, when you fuck up your grammar like that… Yes. Yes it is.

      And, not to belabor the obvious — but, of course, to belabor said obvious — the facts about who receives welfare and people’s ideas about who receives welfare are, alas, not commensurate.

      1. So you have some kind of insight into the racism of those Republicans that i know?

        1. Erik J · ·

          In that I have some (poor) insight into the racism of Americans in general, yes. Obviously I can speak only statistically about your personal acquaintances, and statistics are one of the three grand classes of lies.

          1. So you have some kind of statistics that demonstrate Republicans are more racist than Democrats?

            1. Erik J · ·

              Not off the top of my head, no — nor, you will note, did I claim anything of the sort.
              You said “there is no racism in [group X]”; I said, “That’s false.” This is because there is racism pretty much everywhere. It’s unfortunate, but sadly true.

              1. I think people see what they want to see.

                1. Of course they do. The question is: do you want to see your friends in the best light possible, or do you want to see the truth?

                  The latter is uncomfortable, certainly, but probably more useful if one wishes to fix problems rather than ignoring them.

      2. The idea’s that more than zero people receive welfare. The fact’s that more than zero people receive welfare. What’s not commensurate?

        1. Erik J · ·

          Yes, but then, most people aren’t you, Steve.

  4. […] Sarah Palin’s Linguistic Trap: or, How to Score Off Your Colleague’s Mistakes […]

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