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Opinion: What Is the Cost When the Language of Politics Devolves?

Normalization of racially charged words is dangerous

A Trump supporter holds signs attacking Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement behind a line of community relations police offers prior to the start of a rally by President Donald Trump on Aug. 22 in Phoenix. (David McNew/Getty Images file photo)
A Trump supporter holds signs attacking Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement behind a line of community relations police offers prior to the start of a rally by President Donald Trump on Aug. 22 in Phoenix. (David McNew/Getty Images file photo)

The words Americans now say, listen to and ignore in the world of politics once would have been publicly, if not privately, unacceptable — even in the world of sports.

Don’t believe me?

Back in 1987, Al Campanis, Dodgers executive and onetime player, famous for his warm friendship with baseball’s legendary Jackie Robinson, got in trouble for televised remarks that African-Americans may not have “some of the necessities” for management positions. The next year, CBS Sports commentator Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder was fired over his belief that black people were superior athletes because “during the slave trading, the owner, the slave owner, would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see.”

Some thought the 70-year-old Campanis, who was sidelined by the team he loved, paid too high a price for words he said that did not reflect his intent and the life he lived; Snyder, too, had his supporters. But their ousters were deemed best for sports and for progress.

What does it say about how far America has come and has fallen that in 2018 similar language is endorsed, perhaps tacitly, and certainly not questioned by those who would lead us?

Turning the clock back

Who would have imagined that the term “breeding” to refer to human beings would be making a comeback? Seen through a cynical lens, it is a useful word when, step by insidious step, one wants to deem some people as inherently less — and thus deserving of less — than other Americans.

Unfortunately, each time the president ramps up his demeaning attacks, it is more confirmation than anything. He transitioned from reality TV boss and real estate guy to politics on the insulting fiction that the first black president of the United States was not born in the United States, and candidate Trump stoked fear of Mexican “rapists” right out of the gate.

When Trump pulled out the word recently in a tweet expressing disapproval of California’s immigration policies and the state’s failure to fully cooperate with federal officials, it was more of the same.

“Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept,” he wrote.

It was a little more surprising when Vice President Mike Pence, a man who boasts of his “Christian” credentials, said he was “honored” to be joined at a recent Arizona event by former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt of court last year, and then pardoned by Trump, without a word of remorse. A champion of “the rule of law” was how Pence described the man who was unrepentant about his profiling and detaining of anyone he suspected of being undocumented, and who brushed off complaints of brutal and inhumane conditions at his outdoor jail.

The event was organized by the pro-Trump America First Policies, whose director of advocacy is Carl Higbie, who earlier resigned from a post in the Trump administration. Higbie has defended as not racist his belief that black women “think that breeding is a form of employment” and that the “high percentage of people on welfare in the black race” is because of “lax” morals. He also said he believes “wholeheartedly, wholeheartedly, that the black race, as a whole, not totally, is lazier than the white race, period.” You didn’t need the “period,” Higbie. We wholeheartedly believed you.

The new normal?

The normalization of those kinds of words is dangerous when harsh policies follow.

If certain people are not people, does it matter when environmental regulations that disproportionately affect poor and minority communities are rolled back, while the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, remains in his job despite lavish spending at taxpayer expense?

When U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Ben Carson suspends an Obama-era rule requiring communities to finally do something about segregated housing patterns – 50 years after the Fair Housing Act — if they want to continue to receive federal funds, fair housing advocates object. But will officials in those communities find comfort in their leaders’ fear and loathing of the “other”?

When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos telegraphs her desire to halt programs to address the disproportionate discipline of students of color, despite studies that show a clear and sustained problem, how easy it is to go along if you believe that certain people just naturally need harsh discipline.

As immigration officials increasingly, it is reported, separate undocumented families seeking asylum to discourage illegal immigration, is the policy somehow more palatable because of a belief that somehow those mothers don’t love their children in the same way and those children won’t suffer irreparable harm from being shipped miles away from a parent?

The most obscene words comedian Michelle Wolf spoke in her gig at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner were: “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” It was the unheard mic drop before a relatively well-heeled crowd who instead complained about harsh words to those more than equipped to handle some discomfort.

Interestingly enough, the first lady seems to recognize the power of words in her “Be Best” agenda, which urges children to be kind, especially on social media.

Melania Trump is forging ahead despite the obvious observation that her husband and his administration could try being their best to all Americans, setting an example of those good “genes,” the kind of breeding Trump loves to brag about.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

Watch: Haspel’s Confirmation Hearing Felt Like a Flashback to 2014 

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