A euphemism is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”
Using a euphemism to disguise a racial stereotype you hold is insidious, like a bridal veil masking the face of a burn victim. It is deceptive and unethical.
But one of the contenders running to be the Republican presidential nominee did just that in a recent GOP debate on January 16th. According to a January 18th article by ACLU Liberty Watch 2012, titled “The Constitution and The Campaign Trail: A Weekly Update,” Newt Gingrich substituted the word “poor” for “black” in the January 16th debate: “Newt Gingrich reiterated his proposal to encourage poor children to work as janitors in their schools. The word ‘poor’ as Gingrich and other candidates have used it, especially in the context of ‘food stamps,’ is often a euphemism for African-Americans. Gingrich proudly told the audience how he plans to teach ‘poor’ children the value of work and money. As he told a New Hampshire audience, he wants to teach African-Americans to ‘demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.’” The euphemism hidden inside Gingrich’s proposal makes it seem like he has a genuine concern for the “poor.” But to me, it sounds like another politely put racial stereotype.
If you follow Gingrich’s true meaning down its logical trail, all Hispanic teens would work at Taco Bell after school instead of being on the debate team or the yearbook committee. All Asian teens would belong to the Math club instead of the football team or cheerleading squad.
And all African-American teens would work as janitors in their high schools rather than write for the school newspaper or run for class president.
Limiting the opportunities of “poor” teens by slow-tracking them to the janitorial path is wrong. Do we want someone who holds racial stereotypes and limits the future opportunities of our youth as our president?
In “Newt Gingrich and the Art of Racial Politics,” a January 17th article found on www.nytimes.com, author Charles M. Blow provided a crucial part of the debate transcript, in which Juan Williams asked Gingrich a question and Gingrich responded: “Juan Williams: Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also say poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed as at a minimum as insulting to all Americans but particularly to black Americans?
Newt Gingrich: No, I don’t see that.” (The link to the full article is http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.
Not only is Gingrich’s assumption that all “poor” kids are black and that all black kids are “poor” a racial stereotype, his argument that “black Americans should demand jobs” assumes that African- Americans do not work. Gingrich is blind to the fact that saying “black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps” in one sentence, then saying “poor kids lack a strong work ethic” in the next is him subconsciously showcasing his insulting racial prejudices and stereotypes.
Or maybe he’s not blind. Maybe he is euphemistically speaking on purpose like that to appeal to a certain part of the population.
Or, as Charles M. Blow put it in his www.nytimes.com article, “Gingrich seems to understand the historical weight of the view among some southern whites, many of whom have migrated to the Republican party, that blacks are lazy and addicted to handouts. He is able to give voice to those feelings without using those words. He is able to make people believe that a fundamentally flawed and prejudicial argument that demeans minorities is actually for their uplift. It is Gingrich’s gift: He is able to make ill will sound like good will.”
I guess making ill will sound like good will is the purpose of a euphemism.
But I wonder what Oprah Winfrey would have to say about the kind of work ethic she had growing up. According to a Wikipedia biography on Winfrey, found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Oprah_Winfrey, her first job as a teenager was working at a local grocery store, and in her senior year in high school, she worked part-time doing the news at a radio station and worked there again while in her first two years of college. I wonder how television and print media would be different today if someone had assumed that Winfrey lacked a strong work ethic and slow-tracked her to work in the cafeteria at her high school.