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Engendering Silence: Political Rhetoric and The New Jim Crow

saturday's picture

As Joel was discussing our latest essays in our political philosophy class, the ideas of “realism” versus “idealism” were brought up in regards to framing conversations. In political discourse, realistic is coded to mean the correct, or best, or reasonable course of action, with unrealistic or idealistic coded in the opposite way. It’s loaded and empty at the same time, as anyone can hand-wave away an idea with the premise that it’s “not realistic”. The most likely or most practical solution may not be the best one, and in fact usually isn’t in terms of radical change. This rhetoric shuts down debates before they begin, silencing marginalized thought, as the ones who hold the power by representing the norm can shut down any new ideas because they don’t fit that norm, regardless of their worth.


The concept of using words to silence holds a great deal of political weight. Jason Stanley’s The Ways of Silencing discusses the act of silencing as a political tool used in order to deny one’s opponent legitimacy, or access to the debate. The first such strategy involves bringing up negative character traits about a person, group, or movement - ones that are unrelated to the debate at hand. Whether these claims are true or not makes no difference, in fact they can be blatantly false; it is about simply calling into question “The function of disseminating such claims […] is not to object to […] specific arguments or agenda. It is to undermine the public’s trust […], so that nothing [said] can be taken at face value”. Rather than providing anything substantive, such speech serves to silence the opponent by making their words lose meaning in the context of the debate.

It would be similar to a prosecutor in court presenting illegal but damning evidence in court, only to retract it after the fact, in an attempt to manipulate the jury. Even though said evidence could not be used in the proceedings, the effect is done – even if the claims are stricken from the record there is no way to stop them from coloring the view of the jury in a way that may alter the verdict.  (Such techniques are undoubtedly impermissible in a court of law, but one can’t be disbarred from public debate, and repairing the damage of character assassination can be impossible even if your slanderer is also called into question). This can be achieved similarly by criticizing the tone of one’s speech, or pointing out some insignificant errors, effectively “undermin[ing] the ability of a person or group […] to employ a speech act by representing that person or group as insincere in their use of it”.

A second method of silencing outlined by Stanley involves fixing the language surrounding a debate, often making it emotionally laden in order to prevent any productive debate; as Stanley states, “it is possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims”. He brings up the examples of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the economic concepts of “tax relief” versus “tax cut” – “freedom” and “relief” both have a positive connotation, so criticism of said operation could be twisted into a criticism of freedom itself – who could possibly be against freedom, or against a relief for taxpayers? Another example lies in the “death panel” – a term that came up as a dramatic misunderstanding of certain health care legislation, and though the claims were unsubstantiated the resulting uproar lead to that amendment being struck down altogether.


Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow depict some of these strategies as they were used against black Americans, especially from the 1950’s onward and the Reagan administration. The rhetoric of law and order, as Alexander describes it, concerns the Southern pushback to the Civil Rights Movement. “For more than a decade – from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s – conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime” (Alexander, 40). These actions not only affixed the label of “criminal” to black protestors, but shifted the language around their movement to present them as a menace to society. This aimed to silence any possibly backlash from within the political community as well, since “support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely ‘rewarding lawbreakers’” (40). Controlling the language around the Civil Rights Movement denigrated its participants and supporters twofold, reducing the civil discourse and activism into base crimes.

Such techniques were also present in the “War on Drugs”, which exploited the emergence of crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods to rally support for changes in drug policy and prosecution. While the effects of crack cocaine were deep and devastating, it was hyped through the efforts of the DEA to the point of hyperbole, capitalizing on fears in order to silence debates and push for immediate drastic action. The language surrounding the War on Drugs was simultaneously race-neutral and heavily racially coded, as articles covering the trend “typically featured black ‘crack whores’, ‘crack babies’, and ‘gangbangers,’ reinforcing already prevalent racial stereotypes of black women as irresponsible, selfish ‘welfare queens’ and black men as ‘predators’ – part of an inferior and criminal subculture” (52). As a result of this massive buildup in tensions, legislation was pushed quickly to funnel money into the drug war and move to enact extremely punitive policies, and while there were those who tried to decry the use of crack cocaine as a “scapegoat” to ignore other pressing social issues, “critical voices were lonely ones”, as the governmental bodies were forced into action by the severity of the language surrounding this “drug scourge” (53). This war of words was a continuation of previous efforts to stigmatize the black community, and enforce racism under the guise of fighting drug use by creating laws that disproportionately incarcerate black people.

This leads directly into the “Tough on Crime” rhetoric, which was an expansion of racialized punitive policies that by virtue of its language made itself a necessity. Its roots laid with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, which “aggressively exploited the riots and fears of black crime, laying the foundation for the ‘get tough on crime’ movement”, spearheaded by a speech which warned voters, “choose the way of [the Johnson] Administration and you have the way of mobs in the street” (42). Tough on Crime rhetoric and policies deemed themselves the cure for a symptom of social ills – targeting black activists and citizens without addressing the social issues that leave them in the positions they are in. The lens was shifted to criminalize blackness and black resistance rather than address what they were resisting against, placing the onus on the protestors to behave ‘appropriately’, as “if [blacks] conduct themselves in an orderly way, they will not have to worry about police brutality” - those who spoke out against the violence and pointed out that the demonstrations were themselves “directly related to widespread police harassment and abuse” were dismissed outright (42).


Bringing the discussion back to the text The New Jim Crow itself, it’s relevant to tie in the reasoning behind the author’s own language, specifically the Jim Crow analogy present there within. One of her primary reasons for the comparison between modern racial inequalities and Jim Crow deals with “symbolic production of race”: “Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black” (197). The impact of calling this racial “caste system” a revival of Jim Crow has a startling effect, and a historical callback that inextricably ties current events back to a (not so) distant past. Putting this analogy under the lens of Stanley, does it perpetuate the same rhetorical silencing techniques that are explained in such detail in the text?

James Foreman Jr., author of the paper entitled “Racial Critiques Of Mass Incarceration: Beyond The New Jim Crow”, offers a critical perspective into this framing. He recognizes the importance of this conversation in drawing attention to a “facially race-neutral system that severely ostracizes offenders and stigmatizes young, poor black men as criminals”, but that the analogy can draw some false parallels, leading to misconceptions about the past and present situations (Foreman 101). He argues the analogy obscures the historical origins of mass incarceration before the War on Drugs, as well as the effects that the legislation of this period had on white and other non-black racial groups. In addition, he calls attention to differences in black attitudes towards these policies, including black support for Tough on Crime, as well as class differences within the black community itself. Finally, he argues that the Jim Crow analogy diminishes “collective memory” of the harms done by linking it to contemporary movements which are linked but still incredibly distinct.

Indeed, Alexander herself dedicated a section in her book to addressing the limitations of the analogy. She aims to recognize the intrinsic differences of these racial contexts by describing an “evolution” from the exploitation of slavery, to the subordination of Jim Crow, to the marginalization of mass incarceration. She holds up marginalization to the level of exploitation by evoking the Holocaust and linking genocide to “marginalization and stigmatization”, quoting john a. powell in saying that “It’s actually better to be exploited than marginalized, in some respects, because if you’re exploited presumably you’re still needed” (219). This reasoning models Stanley’s notion of controlling the language in a debate quite effectively, as it was clearly chosen to make an evocative and emotional statement, and was chosen as the guiding analogy even with awareness of the oversights. It silences debate on the topic in a concrete way – we are in a new racial caste system, a faux-colorblind Jim Crow, full stop.

The power, purpose, and weakness of this kind of rhetoric is to leave no room for doubt, holding one view high at the expense of others. It’s limited, it’s silencing – and above all, incredibly effective. 


Anne Dalke's picture

I’m really impressed with the several levels of your argument here: first using Stanley’s ideas (both about silencing voices by controlling the language around a debate, and silencing voices by assigning language to a group in order to discredit them) to re-read The New Jim Crow; then using Forman's analysis of Alexander’s work to call out some of the “false parallels” embedded in her language; and then even (this really seems your neatest move, but maybe only because I hadn’t anticipated it?) looping back to Alexander’s own commentary on the limits of her analogy, as an effective way of controlling the language of the debate—and so silencing it.

Nicely done. And now, of course, comes the next question (!). What are the alternatives to this sort of silencing? What kind of language might not silence, but keep the conversation going?