In 2015, a CNN segment over a word turned into an awkward, dramatic confrontation. When host Erin Burnett asked why the word "thug" isn't an acceptable way to describe predominantly black protesters and rioters in Baltimore, City Councilman Carl Stokes responded, "Come on. So calling them thugs? Just call them ni**ers."
Burnett, who is white, didn't seem to understand the history that made the word offensive to black Americans. Stokes, who is black, reacted to Burnett's comments with a blunt description of how many black people interpret "thug" when it's lodged against them.
How could a word be interpreted so differently by two groups of people? It's because of a phenomenon known as coded language, a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion in the US. And with the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump's rise in the Republican primaries, coded language is at the forefront of public dialogue.
How coded language works
Coded language describes phrases that are targeted so often at a specific group of people or idea that eventually the circumstances of a phrase's use are blended into the phrase's meaning. So since "thug" has been used so often to describe black men in particular, even when they're doing nothing wrong, it now carries a racist connotation.
Ian Haney-López, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, is author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. He explained, "Current racial code operates by appealing to deep-seated stereotypes of groups that are perceived as threatening. But they differ from naked racial terms in that they don't emphasize biology — so it's not references to brown skin or black skin."
The way these words play into stereotypes without outright mentioning them gives the user some leeway, Haney-López said: "It allows people to say, 'Hey, I'm just criticizing the behavior, not criticizing a racially defined group.'"
Generally, coded language is used against a group or idea that threatens traditional power structures, which in America are predominantly white, male, heterosexual, cisgender (that is, not transgender), and Christian. These terms are commonly used against people of color, ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and religious groups — right now, particularly, Muslims.
"The 20th century witnessed a strong push to get beyond white supremacy, to get beyond a social commitment to ideas that elevate whites as human and decent and worthy and nonwhites as less than human and dangerous and unworthy of concern," Haney-López said. "That push has been most successful at a formal level, but what you see in response sort of as an evolution is the search for proxy language that allows you to express the same fears in ways that aren't formally offensive."
Why coded language matters
Ultimately, coded language matters because it works.
Take Donald Trump's 2016 campaign for president. In his campaign announcement speech, Trump infamously said, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. ... They're sending people that have lots of problems. And they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Haney-López explained, "He's saying, 'Focus on the behavior. Focus on the fact that I'm willing to concede that some might be good people. And let me off the hook for trading in racist stereotypes, because I'm not talking in biological terms about monolithic groups. I'm not saying every Mexican is a rapist. I'm just saying a lot of them are.' That's the move."
This is working for Trump, who's now a very serious contender for the Republican nomination. He has very clearly tapped into a large segment of the population that holds xenophobic and nativist fears. Some white nationalists have even embraced his campaign, despite Trump never outright embracing their racist views.
But Trump isn't the first (and probably not the last) to use this kind of coded language or veiled racist tactics in his campaign. Republicans' Southern strategy following the 1960s thrived on this idea — by invoking many white Americans' racial resentment, Republican presidential candidates successfully secured states in the South that historically went Democrat.
Coded language, then, allows politicians, media, and members of the public to tap into bigoted ideas while denying that's what they're doing.
Ultimately, the only way to get around coded language is to call it out, explain what's really going on, and openly discuss how to work through bigoted fears. But if people don't know how coded language works or know to confront its use, that's going to be difficult to achieve.
"Almost every conversation on the right has as a subtext an indication of race," Haney-López said. "On the left, we've got this move that says we shouldn't talk about race, because race is divisive, so let's just focus on economics. It's a disaster, because we're not responding to the racial narrative, so we're not responding to white people's genuine racial fears. At the same time, we're not really addressing the genuine racial justice issues confronting communities of color, which is part of what the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to do."
So what does coded language look like?
What follows is a list of examples of coded language, derived from my conversation with Haney-López, my personal experience, and peers who have encountered this type of language.
It's by no means a comprehensive list. There are many more examples of words that are used to subtly describe and insult people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. But these examples show how coded language can work, and how it can impact broader discussions about these issues.
By its technical definition, "thug" is supposed to refer to a violent person or a criminal. But over time, it has been used so often to refer to black people that it began to carry its own connotation — the racist idea that black people are criminals or violent.
Take, for instance, the Baltimore protests. Were all the protesters in Baltimore, who were demonstrating against Freddie Gray's death in the hands of police, rioting and looting? No, but they were broadly labeled as such, even by the mayor and the president.
As these kinds of contrasts present themselves in media, it becomes clear that the word "thug" is used to describe not merely criminal or violent behavior, but behavior from black men in particular.
2) "Urban" and "inner city"
After white flight out of cities and into suburbs in the 1950s and '60s, the American public and politicians began to associate inner-city life with race. As a result, terms like "inner city" and "urban" have been widely adopted to refer to black people — but they have also been used by prominent figures to refer to high crime and poor work ethic in a way that effectively connects crime, violence, and laziness with black Americans.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), for instance, ran into particular trouble when he used "inner city" in such a way in 2014, saying, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."
Many people interpreted this to suggest that — as politicians have done before with other loaded terms like "welfare queen" — black Americans are lazy, so they're to blame for their own disproportionate levels of poverty, while white Americans are hard-working and, therefore, justifiably prosperous in comparison.
Ryan later apologized for the language, saying he was not referring to black people but rather American society. "After reading the transcript of yesterday morning's interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make," he said. "I was not implicating the culture of one community — but of society as a whole. We have allowed our society to isolate or quarantine the poor rather than integrate people into our communities."
Still, the damage was done. Even if Ryan didn't mean to use the phrase in a derogatory manner, it's so widely used in that way that many people interpreted it as racist.
3) "Black-on-black crime"
The single most common response to concerns about racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system is, "But what about black-on-black crime?"
The question raises the disproportionate levels of crime in black communities — particularly the thousands of homicides each year in which the offender and victim are black — to, on its face, argue that people should worry about black-on-black crime before they worry about police brutality. (Although this ignores the work that many black leaders have done in this area on top of their work on criminal justice issues.)
But it's also playing on a racist idea: that black people are all criminals, so they deserve to be treated differently. The idea is that since crime is higher in black communities, police are justified in going into these places and essentially doing as they wish.
It's true that crime is higher in black communities. But simplifying the connection between racial disparities in the justice system and crime misses other factors, like implicit bias. A review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that throughout various periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons.
Nonetheless, concern trolling about black-on-black crime is a very successful way to divert the conversation by playing into racist stereotypes that paint black people as criminals. It shows another way coded language can work: It can be used to signal that white people shouldn't really care about an issue affecting a certain group, because, the thinking goes, that group brought it upon itself.
4) "Radical Islam"
The term "radical Islam" is supposed to refer to those who are so extreme in their view of Islam that they are willing to carry out deadly terrorist attacks. But this term has taken a new shape to stoke fears of Islam and Muslim people as a whole.
The most concrete proof of this is that fears over radical Islam have been used by many politicians to push for policies that broadly target Muslims. For example, on the presidential campaign trail, Jeb Bush called for preferential treatment of Syrian refugees who are Christian while having Muslims go through a more restrictive process, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul voted for a legislative amendment that would halt all immigration from dozens of Muslim countries with terrorist networks, and Donald Trump called for an all-out ban on Muslims traveling to the US.
Again, all these policies, as politicians describe them, are meant to fight "radical Islam." But they end up targeting all Muslims, even though most of them want nothing to do with extremism or terrorism.
This kind of characterization is common in US media, too. In a 2015 interview, CNN anchor Don Lemon asked Muslim American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar if he supports ISIS, drawing a clearly baffled Iftikhar to ask, as Lemon nodded, "Wait, did you just ask if I support ISIS?" The implication was, of course, that even an American-born Muslim could secretly support terrorists.
By doing this, politicians and media play into a real fear of Muslims in the US. As Vox's Max Fisher explained:
A February poll showed that 54 percent of Republican respondents believe that Obama "deep down" is best described as Muslim. By September, an Iowa poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans there believed that Islam should be legal, with 30 percent saying it should be illegal and 21 percent "unsure." Among Trump supporters in Iowa, hostility toward Muslims was higher but not that much higher: 36 percent said Islam should be outlawed… Fifty-seven percent of Americans, and 83 percent of Republicans, say that Muslims should be barred from the presidency.
Of course, Islamophobia is so common and accepted in the US that sometimes people don't bother with coded language. In a community meeting over plans to replace an aging Islamic center in Virginia, one man stood up and shouted, "Every Muslim is a terrorist, period. Shut your mouth."
An absolutely horrific demonstration of Islamophobia in the U.S.https://t.co/wMFZD6n7Ci— INSIDER (@thisisinsider) November 27, 2015
5) "Sharia law"
Another scary-sounding term for Muslims is Sharia law, which describes a legal system that pushes Islam in both public and private life.
To be clear, there is absolutely no chance of Sharia law going into effect anywhere in the US. Still, politicians have stoked fears about it since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Here is Newt Gingrich, a Republican, in a July 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute: "I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it. I think it's that straightforward and that real."
Some states, including, most recently, South Carolina, have even moved to ban Sharia law in state courtrooms. (Courts routinely consider foreign law when overseeing, for instance, the end of marriages that happened in other countries, but they don't enforce Sharia law.) There's even a website, BanShariaLaw.com, dedicated to the bans.
Fears of Sharia law play into the idea that Muslims are infiltrating the US and threatening to impose their ways on other Americans, so everyone should fear even Muslims who appear moderate. This is, once again, a way of lumping the majority of Muslims — who want nothing to do with extremism — into the same category as extreme followers of the religion.
6) "Illegal immigrant"
"Illegal immigrant" is supposed to describe someone who migrates to the US without legal authority. But it's in fact used to describe a particular group of people: Latinos, in particular Mexicans — even though many unauthorized immigrants can and do come from places outside Latin America.
In White Backlash, UC Berkeley political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Marisa Abrajano noted the phenomenon: "Americans tend to reserve their most negative sentiments for so-called illegal immigrants, but when asked about immigrants as a whole, Mexican Americans, or even Latinos, the answers tend not to differ all that much." (More on that here.)
Haney-López explained that this is a classic use of coded language. Since it's describing an action, politicians can say they're targeting criminal wrongdoing, not a certain group of people. But what they're really tapping into is fears of brown people flooding across the border and reshaping the US from the inside.
7) "Bossy," "sassy," and "uppity"
Although used in different contexts and to describe different groups of people, the words "bossy," "sassy," and "uppity" are several examples of some of the many words used to undermine someone's confidence and assertiveness in different scenarios.
"Bossy" is used to describe women who assert themselves, particularly in work or school. "Sassy" is used to describe black women who stand up for themselves in different social contexts. "Uppity" is used to describe black people in general who challenge authority.
In comparison, a white, straight man is almost never called bossy, sassy, or uppity for asserting himself.
That's what makes these terms coded language: When they're used to only describe a certain group of people doing certain things, it's clear it isn't an individual's actions being singled out, but rather the actions of a person from a certain group.
8) "Religious freedom"
In the battle over LGBTQ rights over the past few years, one term that has increasingly popped up in the public dialogue is "religious freedom." The term is purposely broad to imply that people are fighting for their general religious rights — when it's actually about protecting someone's "religious freedom" to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The case of Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk Kim Davis shows the term's coded use. Davis and her supporters argued that she was merely standing up for her religious freedom. But what she was actually standing up for was her ability to deny same-sex couples their constitutional right to marry by refusing to let her government office issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Similarly, advocacy groups have pushed "religious freedom" laws around the country to allow discrimination — particularly in restaurants and other places that serve the public — against LGBTQ people. (Legal experts, however, argue these laws could not be used to legally justify discrimination.)
"Religious freedom," then, is a term that sounds good on its face, since Americans by and large support letting people practice their chosen faith in peace. But given the context in which it's commonly used, it now carries an anti-LGBTQ sentiment to it, also implying LGBTQ people are inherently antithetical to religion itself.
9) "States' rights"
"States' rights" is a phrase that carries deep historical significance in the US, especially in the context of the 10th Amendment, which defines the relationship between states and the federal government. But over time, the term has been corrupted.
The idea is that states can enact some laws without federal interference. This principle, though, is often used to justify a state's right to enact discriminatory laws and practices — including slavery, segregation, bans on same-sex and interracial marriages, and even a discriminatory immigration law in Arizona.
As a result, "states' rights" has come to define not just how the 10th Amendment is interpreted, but also states' attempts to justify discriminatory laws by citing their vague rights.
10) "Middle class"
Coded language can also be used for white people, in particular to signal support for white supremacy. One such example is the phrase "middle class," which is often deployed by conservative politicians to refer not just to members of the middle class, but to white members of the middle class in particular.
"'Middle class' stands as a signifier for whites," Haney-López argued. "It stands in opposition to the word 'poor,' which over the last 40 or 50 years has come to be associated with people of color."
"Middle class" also stands in contrast to "inner city" and "urban," which were deployed after white flight out of the cities and into the suburbs during the 1950s and '60s.
"If you had to live near, work with, or send your children to school with blacks, you weren't actually middle class," Haney-López said. "You needed to leave the city and move out to the suburbs. That was an economic marker, but it was also a racial marker of your middle-class status, because you were physically distant from African Americans."
It is a classic example of coded language. There are of course many, many middle-class black Americans. But because of how the term has been used over time, it's attained a different, pernicious meaning — one that politicians and media have subtly embraced to play up likeness to and contrast from people of certain demographics.