Racist vs. “Racist”

Following up on my post from a week or so ago about how the mainstream press has been struggling to cover the news in post-Trump America, I have a question. I was just reading an article on the NBC News website about Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, the co-chair of Donald Trump’s campaign in New York, and some racist comments he recently made about Michelle Obama, and I’m curious as to why the editors chose to put the word racist in quotation marks… And, for what it’s worth, I’m not asking that in some kind of backhanded way, just to set myself up for a post about how, by doing this, the editors at NBC News are somehow cutting Paladino a break, and thereby further contributing toward the normalization of racist attitudes in America. The truth is, I really don’t know, and I’m curious… Before we get into it, though, here’s some of what Paladino, an elected school board member in Buffalo, had to say to the editors of the weekly publication Artvoice, when asked what he would most like to see go in the coming year.

“Michelle Obama,” Paladino responded. “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”

I think a reasonable person would find that to be racist, right? So, if that’s the case, why is racist in quotation marks, as if to imply that it’s somehow up for interpretation? Is it because Paladino put out a statement shortly afterward, saying that his comments had “nothing to do with race“? Can a news entity not use the word racist, minus the quotation marks, unless someone owns up to it and says, “Yeah, what I said really was racist?” Do they run the risk of being sued for libel otherwise? Or is it just that news agencies aren’t in the practice of using pejoratives when discussing those individuals they cover, no matter how appropriate? And, if that’s the case, is it time to reconsider that rule?

Is this as serious as news agencies still choosing to refer to white nationalist organizations as the more friendly sounding “alt right”? No. But I do find it fascinating.

Here, for those of you who won’t follow the link, is the NBC News headline.


For what it’s worth, Paladino implied that we could expect more “humor” like this in the future. “It’s about a little deprecating humor which America lost for a long time,” Paladino said of his comments. “Merry Christmas and tough luck if you don’t like my answer.”

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  1. Posted December 23, 2016 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    While we’re on the subject, it’s worth remembering that, when Pamela Ramsey Taylor, a small town official in West Virginia, lost her job not too long ago for posting on Facebook that Michelle Obama was an “ape in heels,” she not only said that the comment wasn’t racist, but added that the way she was being treated was a hate crime.

  2. jean henry
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    There is a Public editor at the nytimes. If you actually want the answer, ask her. It’s a good question and of the ethical kind they tend to favor

  3. Lynne
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    White people are still the majority which means they are the majority of consumers of the news. There really are a lot of white people who define racism as a conscious expression of hate based only on race. In their minds they hate the Obamas because of their politics. Their social bubbles are filled with people who have so many biases that the biases are normalized.

    And as often happens when such status differences are normalized, equality feels like oppression to those losing their privilege. Everyone else sees it as them losing something they were never entitled to in the first place but that isnt how they see it. They really see it as oppression. So they are sensitive. Fragile. Yet still privileged enough that the media will put that word in quotes for them.

  4. jean henry
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Bias is culturally and systemically engrained. While it remains important to call out blatant racism as in this case, it does little to address the problem. And one must ask whether there is an element of defection– of stating what we are not– in the constant calling out of latent racism. If it’s blatant then it really just needs to be stated. (Maybe sans parenthesis. )There are plenty of points of complaint by marginalized people about bias specific to liberal and leftist thinking. It would be interesting and useful to explore that more. It would certainly be a more difficult and uncomfortable conversation than condemning someone who compares Black people to apes.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    He’s not a member of the Klan, therefore not a racist.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Also, he did say that he hopes she lives comfortably as a male gorilla. Would a racist be concerned about her comfort?

  7. Meta
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    The Hill came right out and said it was racist in their headline.


  8. Morbid Larson
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    People like make generalizations. It makes them feels powerful.

  9. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    They were pointing out that it has been called a racist statement.

  10. Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I get that they were pointing out that it had been called a racist statement. What I was trying to get at was the distinction between saying that something is racist, and saying that something has been referred to as racist. At what point, I wonder, do journalists decide to change over from saying “David Duke, who some people call a racist,” to “David Duke, the racist”? Again, like I said, I don’t think this is the biggest problem we’re facing as a culture. I just find it interesting.

  11. Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    And The Hill headline is interesting. “Trump NY co-chair makes racist remarks about Michelle Obama,” they say, which seems more on-the-mark to me. Again, I’m just fascinated by how everyone is approaching this new reality we find ourselves in, with people feeling increasingly emboldened to press societal norms.

  12. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Which is worse do you think, some jerk associated with Trump’s campaign saying that or racist violence against “white boy Trump supporters?” Which is the more serious crime and which is more reported?

  13. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Aftermath of viral video attack

  14. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink


  15. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Trump team blasts Paladino


    “Carl’s comments are absolutely reprehensible, and they serve no place in our public discourse,” said spokeswoman Jessica Ditto.

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