The Dirtiest of Words on Capitol Hill: “Racism”

Shani O. Hilton searches the words that members of Congress use as stand-ins for frank conversations about race, and finds some interesting trends.

By Shani O. Hilton Jan 03, 2012

Campaign season officially kicks off tonight as Iowa Republicans caucus over who will be the party’s presidential nominee. We’ve already heard a lot of talking–in scores of debates, a torrent of press releases and a cacophony of press coverage. But we’ll be hearing much, much more over the next 11 months. So, figured it was a good time to take a look at what our existing elected officials are already saying about some crucial racial justice issues–or, more specifically, to look at how they’re saying it. To do so, I turned to the neat Capitol Words tool from the Sunlight Foundation.

In scouring Capitol Words—a project that catalogues all the words recorded on the House and Senate floors–it’s not a surprise that 90 percent of the politicians who use the phrase "undocumented immigrant" are Democrats, while only 11 percent use "illegal aliens." But charting the popularity of words that stand-in for a frank conversation about race is an interesting experiment that doesn’t always yield expected results.

Since 1996, for instance, "immigration" has typically been mentioned by Republicans slightly more often than Democrats. The three members of Congress who have brought it up the most frequently are Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions and Texas Democrat Sheila-Jackson Lee. But in the last two years, both parties have used the word at about the same rates–a reminder that immigration has become a key political battleground. Since 2009, Iowa Republican Steve King, an anti-immigration hardliner, has been the most frequent user of the word, followed by two Democrats: California’s Dianne Feinstein and Colorado’s Jared Polis. (Relatedly: King’s third most favorite word to use on the House floor is the pejorative "illegals.")

Here are a handful of other words that offer a window into how Congress thinks.

"Urban" is a euphemism best known to be thrown around in any discussion of largely poor and black parts of the United States. Not a surprise, since outside of the South, the country’s black population centers tend to be in cities. This term is far more popular among Democrats than Republicans–61 percent of Dems use the term versus 37 percent of Republicans. "Rural," a term which tends to mean "poor and white," actually gets more play.

The fear of foreign workers "taking our jobs" manifests in the word "outsourcing." And while 10 years ago, the phrase hardly crossed the lips of any members of Congress, 2004 saw a spike after a North Dakota Democrat introduced the "Increasing Notice of Foreign Outsourcing Act," a bill that, yes, took notice of an increase in foreign outsourcing. While it died in committee, Democrats have not let the word go, and 71 percent of occurrences of the word come from them. Meanwhile the phrase "our jobs" has a more equitable usage: 54 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans use it.

"Racial Preference"
Much like "undocumented" versus "illegal," the terms "affirmative action" and "racial preference" ostensibly mean the same thing–except the latter terms are both derisive. It’s not a surprise that only 12 percent of people using the term "racial preference" are Democrats, while Republicans make up 88 percent of the people who say it. Interestingly, of the three Republicans who use it the most, two come from mostly white states–Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and Utah’s Orrin Hatch. Only Alabama’s Jeff Sessions comes from a state with a large black population; more than 1 in 4 Alabama residents are black.

Last month, "profiling" got a boost after Michigan’s John Conyers introduced the End Racial Profiling Act. But since 1996, three out of four times the word is being used it’s uttered by Democrats. And there’s no straight analog for the word coming out the Republican party–a sign that very few believe that profiling is a policy worth discussing.

Ethnicity descriptors
Search for the words "black," "African," "Asian," "Hispanic," "Latino," "Native American," and you’ll find that Democrats are the ones using them three times as much as Republicans (though "Muslim" is equally popular). Republicans might take this as proof that that Democrats are obsessed with race–but conservatives’ inability to discuss race in a formal setting reinforces how out of touch they can be with the reality of racial injustice.

Granted, no one really wants to talk about racism aside from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Immediately after Sept. 11, the word "racism" was used fairly frequently–at least compared to now–likely in an attempt to quell anti-Muslim sentiment. But these days it’s become the dirtiest of words. Members of Congress said the word only 46 times this year. In the month of September 2001 alone, it was mentioned 50 times.