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Translating the White House’s White Words

The words coming from the White House, whether as tweets or executive orders are full of racialized criminal imagery.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

A recent episode of “Saturday Night Live” opened with Melissa McCarthy’s now-notorious impression of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. This time, a brief new cameo was made by Kate McKinnon portraying the recently sworn in Attorney General Jeff Sessions. After commenting on the battle over his confirmation, McKinnon’s Sessions character launches into a discussion of his policy points: “So, we all know there are two types of crime, regular and Black….” McCarthy quickly returns as Spicer to hurry Sessions away from the microphone before any more damage is done.

Though the SNL skit was clearly meant to elicit laughter, the comment from the Sessions character about “types” of crime reveals an underlying truth of this administration, and of white supremacy itself. The different “types” of crime are clearly delineated along racial lines. What groups are classed in the “violent” category? Who is categorized under terminology like “criminal” or “illegal”? We should also know what’s meant by political buzzwords like “gang” or “cartel.” We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that these crime categories are always associated with distinct “criminal” acts; instead, they are associated with particular groups of people.

Another of Donald Trump’s racialized catch phrases — “law and order,” recycled from Richard Nixon — manifested in especially plain sight on Friday. Trump’s announcement of the signing of three executive orders calls up with long and painful histories of white political scapegoating in the United States. According to the White House blog, the first executive order seeks to “ensure that funding supports officers on the street” while assuring that “anyone who tries to do them harm will be aggressively prosecuted.” The second will “instruct the Attorney General to form a task force to look at how crime can be reduced and public safety increased.” The third executive order “instructs the Attorney General to form a separate task force to focus on destroying transnational criminal organizations and drug cartels.” Further it states, “These dangerous groups bring drugs and violence to once-peaceful neighborhoods in the United States and around the world…. They will no longer operate with impunity in this country or this hemisphere.”

The short vagueness of the blog post — and even the orders themselves — reflects the tone of the Trump campaign in its lead-up to the White House and its continued obscurity now therein. The president himself rarely provides fine detail or nuance. While it might be puzzling to some that the person who is obliged to lead the “free world” might be able to get away with such impreciseness, we should factor in that he’s consistently using racially coded language and themes. He’s saying just enough to communicate to his intended audience.

The “Blue Lives Matter” executive order, as some are calling it, is supposedly to protect police. The irony of signing an order like this in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing outspokenness around state violence is more than just counterproductive. Trump’s move here is to assure “white America” that the police state, a protectorate of white supremacy, will not be upended by anyone decrying its impunity. By furthering the punishment for those who would seek to do the police harm, he’s attempting to scare protesters and ward off the possibilities for future resistance. Think of Jasmine Abdullah, Maile Hampton, or the group of five protesters in Murrieta, California, all of whom were charged with felony “lynching” charges for challenging police who were taking other protesters into custody. Using racialized language and creating faux victimhood around the police only seeks to solicit the support of much of white America, who know that the police are ultimately there to protect the interests of white supremacist capitalism.

The “Presidential Executive Order on a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety” opens with language stating, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to reduce crime in America. Many communities across the Nation are suffering from high rates of violent crime.” This repeats the words “crime” and “safety” to the point of redundancy, without offering great detail about what’s actually being accomplished. It also mentions “illegal immigration” in a couple of instances.

The final executive order, “Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking” makes the implications even plainer. While speaking about the safety of the American people, it conjures up racialized criminal imagery like the other two, but more forcefully. The mention of transnational cartels draws from stereotypes placed on immigrants of color, usually Latinx, as violent drug runners entering into the United States to usurp (white) peace and authority. This much is blunt by the end of the first paragraph: “They, for example, have been known to commit brutal murders, rapes, and other barbaric acts.” The mention of “criminal gangs” in this order returns us to the exaggerated rising crime rates Trump has spoken of in his supposed efforts to combat crime (i.e., heighten policing) in the Black community. The references to particular violent acts also recall his previous, repeated, fallacious linking of these acts with immigrants from Mexico.

“We need a lawful system of immigration,” Sessions said upon being sworn in. “We need to end this lawlessness that threatens the public safety.”

However, around this time last year, undocumented immigration reached a 13-year low. Moreover, several studies have found undocumented immigrants less likely to commit crime than people born in the United States. The anti-immigrant record of Jeff Sessions, the unqualified opinions of Donald Trump and others in his administration, and the glossary of terms that allow white supremacists to get away with atrocities must be explicitly stated.

We know that “cartel” is meant to be anti-immigrant; we know that “terrorist” is meant to shore up fear of Muslims and refugees; we know that “gun violence” and “gangs” are associated with Blackness. This administration should not be afforded any leniency or benefit of the doubt. (It certainly is not giving the predominantly Black and Brown people trying to survive its abhorrent policies any leniency.) Those who have the power to amplify the voices of underrepresented people should do so without pause, and not seek fickle liberal imaginings of unbiased media performance. The way in which politicians are using loaded, bigoted language that dates back many decades is a direct threat to the very existence of the people being targeted.

Journalists, writers, documentarians and others working in media should be completely blunt about what these words, phrases and references mean. It’s necessary for us to translate what’s really being said while exposing lies and hypocrisies. The truth of our own commitment to equity can, in part, be found in which words we’re willing to tolerate — and whom we’re willing to tolerate them from.

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