The 'R-Word' In The Age Of Trump When Donald Trump allegedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries as "shitholes," we called his comments r-...rr-...really really vulgar. Why were we so afraid to call them racist?
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The 'R-Word' In The Age Of Trump

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The 'R-Word' In The Age Of Trump

The 'R-Word' In The Age Of Trump

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Just a real quick heads-up - the following episode contains language that some folks may find offensive.

KAT CHOW, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHOW: I'm Kat Chow, and I want to play you a voicemail I got from a man named Paran Lamb (ph).

PARAN LAMB: Hi, Ms. Chow. I heard your reporting on President Trump's remarks, and it was very bad reporting.

CHOW: A few weeks ago, I got this email from my editor asking for a short news piece about Trump's language during a bipartisan Oval Office meeting about immigration. You know exactly what I'm talking about - Shithole-Gate, also known as that time the President of the United States Donald Trump allegedly called Haiti and some African nations shitholes or shit-houses. My assignment was to talk about how this fits in with all those other comments he's made about people of color and immigrants - cool, lots to choose from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: NPR's Kat Chow reports this was one of many instances of the president making racially-charged remarks.

CHOW: This isn't the first time Trump has made denigrating remarks about people of color and immigrants. According to news reports last year, Trump described Haitian immigrants as having AIDS, and said that if the U.S. accepted Nigerian immigrants they wouldn't, quote, "go back to their huts." And just months ago after multiple hurricanes tore through Puerto Rico - leaving many there in need of aid - Trump insinuated they were lazy. He tweeted that Puerto Ricans want everything to be done for them. In 2015, when calling for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, Trump described Mexicans as rapists. The president tweeted that he never said anything derogatory about Haitians in Thursday's meeting. Kat Chow, NPR News.

About an hour later, this was what was on my phone.

LAMB: You're a journalist. Journalists expose. Expose him. Call him by who he is and what he does. It is accurate. Accuracy is what you're after. Call President Trump a racist, Kat. He is a racist.

CHOW: We reached out to Paran to ask if we could use parts of his voicemail as a launching point for an episode of CODE SWITCH. He said yes. He's 64. He lives in San Francisco. He is an artist. And he says he lost half his family in the Holocaust. So this is a really important point for him to make. And it's not a point I haven't considered in the past. Writing this spot, I really struggled with this question of how to characterize the shithole comment - of whether or not to use the word racist.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And it's something I've struggled with too. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's out sick, but he's still all over this episode. Don't worry. This week, we're asking the question what's our responsibility as journalists to describe something or someone as racist. How you answer that question probably depends on whether you think of racism as straightforward sociological truth or as a judgment of someone's character. The word racist is so charged that even white supremacists don't want to be called racists - bad for the brand. A couple of years ago, Robin DiAngelo, a professor of whiteness studies at Westfield State, told us racist is, quote, "like the N-word for white people."

Newsrooms have been struggling to characterize certain things President Trump does and says without appearing partisan or offending certain listeners. We're using phrases like racially-insensitive or racially-charged. So what do you gain or lose by just saying racist? We're going to talk to two people who think about language and context for a living but in very different ways. First up - our NPR ethics guide Mark Memmott.

Mark, you're the NPR standards and practice editor and...

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Practices.

MERAJI: Oh, practices - here we go.

DEMBY: That was a very standards and practices editor correction, too.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Practices, my bad. For listeners who don't work in the media, tell us. What exactly do you do?

MEMMOTT: I nag people. It's kind of like being the high school principal. Yesterday, I referred to it as kind of like being the person who's here to help us steer around icebergs - might be language icebergs, might be ethical icebergs, might be just coverage icebergs. But try to get the right people together to talk through how we're going to handle something.

DEMBY: OK, so let's talk about something that's in the news that people were trying to figure out how to handle. What is NPR's official policy regarding the word racist?

MEMMOTT: Use it when it fits.

DEMBY: OK, so when does it fit?

MEMMOTT: That's the interesting question. You have to talk through these things. You know, it's a label. Is using the word going to label someone? Yeah, probably. Is it going to stop the listener or the reader from hearing or understanding the rest of your story because they've automatically assumed that you've typecast this person. You've labeled them. You've assumed you know what it was they were thinking - what was in their mind when they said what they said. When you say official policy, the official policy is basically to think these things through and be really careful with labels.

MERAJI: So that's labeling a person racist. What about labeling their actions or their words as racist?

MEMMOTT: That's a little bit easier because, you know, the words or the acts are easier to sort of identify, to explain. You know, you can use action words to describe what it was this person did - action words to describe what the effects of their words were. You know, the words might have the effect of raising racial tensions or inflaming race relations. We generally, you know, also like to lean on using those action words - not telling people to think about what someone did or said and labeling it but giving them the facts - giving them the action words so that they can decide for themselves.

DEMBY: So if you said - if we said that efforts to restrict voting in dozens of states across the country are effectively racist because they disproportionately affect black and brown voters. Would that be above board?

MEMMOTT: You're getting close there. I mean, you've used some facts. You've marshaled, you know, your evidence to say that those actions have had this effect, and that's creating racial inequity.

MERAJI: So what prompted this discussion we're having with you is President Trump's alleged shithole - shithouse comments about Haiti and certain African nations versus the Northern European country Norway. And the journalists at NPR called these alleged comments anything but racist. They called them racially-charged. They called them vulgar, denigrating. We don't have an official policy about racist. So why didn't we just use the word?

MEMMOTT: It's important to point out we weren't in the room. It's hard to read into the guy's mind or into his heart whether he's talking about the economic inequality or inequities or differences between nations and how that would affect immigration - whether he's talking about the race of the people.

MERAJI: So you said earlier part of your thinking about this is whether or not you are turning off people, right? Like, whether people who are listening to the report will say, oh, well, they've already categorized that person. And they have an agenda. And I'm not going to listen to this anymore. What about people who are turned off because they don't think that we've used the appropriate term to describe the action or the words that were used - the statement that was used? I mean, which person is more important to us?

MEMMOTT: Obviously both audiences are important. And it's a judgment call, and it's hard to say to one that we value the other one over the other because we don't. We value all our listeners. What we're trying to say there is we want everyone to hear our stories. We want everybody to work through them. And we want to keep giving people the impression that we aren't walking into them with a bias one way or the other - that we're going to spell out what happened and let them decide. We don't tell people what to think. We give them the information they need to decide what they think. It's not weighing one audience against another because we think about everyone. It's trying to be consistent.

MERAJI: Mark?

MEMMOTT: Shereen?

MERAJI: You talked about consistency. And I don't know if you were the standards and practices editor in 2015. Were you in October of 2015?

MEMMOTT: Yes, I was.

MERAJI: You were? OK, so Robert Siegel has an intro, and this is about Louis Farrakhan. And I'm going to read you this intro. (Reading) A rally in Washington tomorrow will focus on the challenges facing people of color...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: It's a commemoration of one of the largest gatherings in the nation's history - The Million Man March. Twenty years ago, Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, urged African-American men to travel to the nation's capital. Farrakhan was divisive then and continues to be, still making anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic comments in his speeches. NPR's Cheryl Corley...

MERAJI: So it's OK to label Louis Farrakhan's statements and speeches homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist. But it's not OK to label President Trump's various statements racist.

MEMMOTT: We shouldn't have done it that way. We get things wrong every day. And we don't follow our own guidelines every day because we're putting out an enormous amount of information.

MERAJI: Right.

MEMMOTT: And to expect every journalist in this organization to get it right all the time is just - I've found - impossible. I would have suggested that they, again, go back to the action words - that perhaps Mr. Farrakhan's views and words and statements had been seen as, you know, had been - you know, that over the years he had been called these sort of things - and then use the piece to explain that - which I imagine is what the piece did. But, yeah, it's not right that we labeled his comments. We should have treated them the same way we would the president's, the senator's, mine, yours, Gene's, whomever.

DEMBY: Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor - practices.

MEMMOTT: Very good.

DEMBY: Thank you, Mark.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome.

MERAJI: We're going to take a quick break. But right after, we'll talk to a psychologist who studies racial bias - implicit and explicit. And he has thoughts about when to say racist.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: The one that absolutely makes me lose my mind is racially-charged. No, it wasn't. It was racist.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And we're back with our next guest, Phillip Atiba Goff. He's one of the leading experts on the psychology of racism, and he's the president of the Center for Policing Equity. He helps police departments measure just how much they're discriminating. Various CODE SWITCH team members have called him up to pick his brain. If speed dial were still a thing, he'd be on Gene's. But this is his very first time on the podcast.

DEMBY: Phil, finally, welcome to CODE SWITCH.

GOFF: (Laughter). Thanks for having me, Gene.

MERAJI: Phil says people tend to be imprecise when they're talking about racism and use words that have very different meanings. So he kicks things off by defining some terms.

GOFF: We start with the stereotype 'cause the stereotype's just the idea.

MERAJI: OK.

GOFF: So you and I may know the stereotype that black people are good at basketball, but if you've ever seen my crossover, we know the stereotype is not true.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

GOFF: And then we go into the prejudice, right? Now, the prejudice is the feeling, the I just don't like that group. It's a feeling. And we talk about the difference between prejudice and bigotry is, bigotry is the feeling, and or you believe the darned stereotype. Then we get discrimination. Discrimination is when you act on any of that stuff. Now, you don't have to believe the stereotype to act on it. You can discriminate without having malice towards any group. Right? But the behavior is discrimination. That's what's key to that word.

Now, racism. Why would you need to talk about racism if you've got racial stereotypes, racial prejudice, racial bigotry, racial discrimination? Well, because none of those words capture what happens when there's a pattern or there are social structures set up to support a pattern of those behaviors. The problem is that the vast majority of people who use the term think that the most important thing to understand about racism is not the pattern of harms that accrue to the group, it's the moral character of the perpetrators. And that's where we get into problems.

MERAJI: Break that down so it's not so academic sounding.

(LAUGHTER)

GOFF: Be less like yourself. No problem. So remember Don Imus got in a big dust up because he referred to the Rutgers women basketball team as some nappy-headed hos? The conversation that ensued was about whether or not Don Imus was racist in his heart. And there was almost no conversation, that I found in the public discourse, about the conversation I had to have with my two goddaughters about why it was best for them to go ahead and blow-dry their hair when they went to school the next day, about, yes, in fact, some people at your school are going to make fun of you for how you wear your hair. They're more likely to want to touch it, and that's going to feel icky to you in part 'cause of this history. You're going to pick up on that history. You're going to feel a bit of it.

That's the harms that that comment did. That's the reason why we should care. We had no conversation about that. What we talked about was Don Imus's character. That we cared about that and we didn't care about my goddaughters is racist.

MERAJI: So when President Trump describes Haitian immigrants as having AIDS, says if the U.S. accepted Nigerian immigrants they wouldn't go back to their huts, that Puerto Ricans want everything to be done for them, and then now we've got Shithole Gate, where he allegedly compared Haiti and African nations as shitholes or shit-house countries versus the Northern European country of Norway. We have all of that, and then we have NPR calling those statements everything but racist. Do you think this is similar to the Don Imus example that you gave?

GOFF: It's way worse. If we're not clear that people have talked about Africa like they have not progressed from huts, like Nigeria doesn't and Kenya don't have some of the most high-tech cities in the world, if we don't recognize that that comes from a long history of racial bias, racial prejudice, racial discrimination, racial stereotypes, well, I don't know what we've done other than erase the history that makes an understanding of our present moment possible. So like the phrase that is - the one that absolutely makes me lose my mind is racially charged. No, it wasn't. For sure whatever it was was not racially charged. It was racist. Right? 'Cause there is no language that's going to merit someone saying racially charged that's not part of a pattern of disparaging a particular group of people because they belong to that group. See, the deal is that for those of us who have been swimming in this stuff for a while, the coded language is just a little too on the nose.

MERAJI: And the other argument is you don't use an adjective at all. You don't use a descriptor. You just say this person said X thing, and then the audience decides for themselves.

GOFF: There's no clean way out of it. If someone flings mud, somebody's getting dirty. I thought the purpose of journalism was to report and help to interpret, to provide the context that a listener, a reader or a viewer would not otherwise have. I apologize. I thought that because I'm literally reading the definition of journalism right now to you.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

GOFF: So if the purpose of journalism is to provide the context not readily available to the reader, listener or viewer, and you were afraid to provide the historical context that identifies the pattern, you were afraid to do the job of journalism, which I think characterizes entirely too much of journalism right now - a thing I hate to say because there is an attack on journalism that is part of the core problem with our democracy's ability to function right now.

DEMBY: OK. So we're talking about this in the context of media and the context of journalism. Are there advantages and disadvantages, like, in our personal lives to calling someone's behavior out as racist explicitly?

GOFF: Language is always strategic, right? I cuss less around my parents than I do around my friends 'cause they're my parents, right? My dad will occasionally refer to my mom as flossy. If you ever meet her, I highly recommend you don't do that 'cause my dad is the only one who's allowed. We understand that language is contextual, and if you have a particular goal for your audience, you use the language that's most likely to get you towards that goal. What I want to avoid is a reduction of this conversation into when should you, when shouldn't you, should you ever? Right? Like, that's not productive for me. The word can have a specific meaning, and the specific meaning is it addresses the historical context of the behavior, the thoughts, the actions. Right? If you want to signal the connection to that historical behavior, you use the word. I like using the term 'cause it's specific and economical. I mean it specifically and economically. If I'm going to be misunderstood by my audience, I try and use more indifferent words. But when it's very clear for people who experience it, it is offensive watching people contort themselves to do the mental gymnastics to avoid making certain classes of folks feel uncomfortable when those same classes are doing literal injury to the rest of us.

MERAJI: Phillip Atiba Goff. He's a psychologist who researches racial bias and discrimination. He's also a founder and the president of the Center for Policing Equity. Thanks so much.

GOFF: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right. Before we go, we just wanted to bring back Kat for a moment and talk about her short news story.

Hey, Kat.

CHOW: Hey.

DEMBY: So at the top you said that you struggled with the decision to use the word racist when describing President Trump's shithole remarks. I'm just glad I get to say shithole before this episode's over.

CHOW: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Isn't it alleged shithole remarks?

DEMBY: Alleged shithole - I get to say it twice.

MERAJI: Alleged.

DEMBY: So why didn't you end up using the word racist?

CHOW: As I was trying to write this spot I was, you know, in my head, having this internal debate about whether or not to use that word, racist. It was typing it, I was deleting it. And I kept thinking about these internal discussions that we've had on CODE SWITCH, these editorial discussions about whether or not to use that word. And one thing that we always come back to is, I mean, racist, that word, it can derail a conversation. It can make you lose your readers or listeners. Try and use other vocabulary. And at the same time also, CODE SWITCH'S audience, I think that we have a tendency to think that, you know, they're more read-in on issues about race and the structural or institutional racism and how that manifests than a broader NPR audience. And so that was what was going through my head. In a way, I was doing this, like, reporter, CODE SWITCH-y thing.

MERAJI: You know, after listening to Mark, and after listening to Phillip and now listening to you, I do personally think that we should use the word when it's appropriate and when it's accurate, and when we have time, say the word and then provide the explanatory comma. You know, provide that broader historical context.

DEMBY: I guess one of the things that I'm curious about is, you know, so both Phillip Abita Goff and Mark Memmott made the argument that you should then use more contextualizing words, you should give more of the history, but one that sort of presumes that you could ever marshal enough evidence that the thing that you're referring to, to racism, would be clear to everyone, right? If you said that Trump did this and that and this and that, that people will say, OK, I'm with you, that dude is a racist. Or, what he said was racist, right? In part because I think there is this broad impulse for people to, like, want to absolve people of racism, right? So even if we use different language or less charged words or more specific, I don't think that still would get us across the finish line of getting a lot of people to characterize, you know, a statement as racist. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: I mean, whether you say it or you don't say it, they're not going to characterize it as racist so you might as well say it.

DEMBY: Right. You're right.

CHOW: That's a good point, Shereen.

DEMBY: So Kat, listening to all this, would you - having to do that spot again, would you use the word racist?

MERAJI: Dun, dun, dun (ph).

CHOW: (Laughter). Well, I'm glad we had this conversation because I feel like in a way you guys have helped me. And, yeah, if I had the same exact assignment, I would use the word racist to describe the behavior.

MERAJI: Kat, thank you for being so vulnerable...

CHOW: (Laughter). I hope our listeners are nice.

MERAJI: ...And letting us make a whole podcast about this.

CHOW: Oh, my God, about my bad, bad reporting?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: You're very brave, Kat.

CHOW: Well, thanks for having me on.

MERAJI: Kat Chow, NPR reporter and, more importantly, CODE SWITCH squad. And that's our show for this week. We want to hear from you. How do you feel when journalists use or don't use the word racist? When should we and when shouldn't we? Email us at codeswitch@npr.org with the subject line r-word. Or tweet at us. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. Subscribe to the podcast if you haven't already wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed, and please give us a review on iTunes. It helps people find the show.

Leah Donnella, Sami Yenigun and I produced this episode. It was edited by Sami and Steve Drummond. We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei. And, as always, a shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Walter Ray Watson, and Kat Chow, who you just heard. Our intern is Kumari - and I'll let you say your last name.

KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: Devarajan.

MERAJI: Devarajan. Kumari Devarajan. And you're going to share a song giving you life this week, right?

DEVARAJAN: Yes, I am.

MERAJI: What is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMAIYAH SONG, "HOW DOES IT FEEL")

DEVARAJAN: "How Does It Feel" by Kamaiyah. It's a nice cruising song.

MERAJI: OK. Tell me about this song. Like, what speaks to you?

DEVARAJAN: Well, I'd say - two summers ago, my best friends from high school and I would just ride around D.C. and listen to this song with our windows down, acting obnoxious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DOES IT FEEL?")

KAMAIYAH: (Singing) It was me, Joey B and Cocaine James on the O. Same clique, same friends, never change on my folks.

MERAJI: And so it reminds you of your youth?

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. (Laughter).

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: I'm still in my youth, but, yeah.

MERAJI: (Laughter). Thanks, Kumari.

DEVARAJAN: Thanks, Shereen Marisol Meraji.

MERAJI: Be easy.

DEVARAJAN: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DOES IT FEEL?")

KAMAIYAH: (Singing) It's Kamaiyah. Please retire. Hot girl set the city on fire. I've been broke all my life.

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