At the Beaverton Transit Center, I sat on a bench alongside two Hispanic women and their spunky kindergarten-aged daughter. Sitting between us was a wizened, portly old man with white five-o’clock-shadow. He was dressed in dark and simple clothing, passively alternating his gaze between his Big Mac and his Walkman CD player. Suddenly the small child began to cough and hack relentlessly – she had drunk her Slurpee too quickly and inhaled some of the liquid. Her mother smacked her back and quietly comforted her.
At that point, the old man between us stood up and walked away saying “Fucking spics,” glancing quickly in my direction. I retorted quickly saying “You can’t talk to people like that,” which, in the ears of a hardened racist, probably sounded like bleeding-heart, politically correct, Portland-liberal nonsense. I was met with a defiant, “Well I just did. What are you gonna do about it?”
After a short, but heated spat, I felt like it would be better to just let this one go, rather than engage in a shouting match with a bitter old man. Never-the-less, I was taken aback by this exchange. I had never in my life heard someone publicly defend such shameful words. His words resonated with a liberating combativeness, like “You can’t fire me – I quit!”
In the midst of our country’s current immigration debate, politicians like Donald Trump have built their campaign around the silent majority: Americans who want to “take their country back.” It seems our current political climate has given a legitimate voice to those who are aggrieved by the presence of minorities.
We hear countless stories about how “political correctness has gone too far” and perhaps this is true in some cases. There is little room for sensitivity in comedy. Comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have found themselves less inclined to perform at college campuses, where their playful willingness to offend, falls on deaf ears. However, the discussion of political correctness in politics often spills into discussions involving comedy, where the effects of political correctness run amok is much less pivotal.
Rejoice! Your racist-uncle-who-almost-ruined-Thanksgiving has suddenly become aligned to mainstream political discussion. The pushback against political correctness has been fueled by a narrative that suggests people’s feelings have taken precedence over common sense. Political correctness is often portrayed an instrument of the “thought-police,” an insidious means of censorship propagated by the reflexive masses. Political correctness is “the new brand of censorship,” according to comedian and political commenter Bill Maher. Politicians like Ben Carson also seem to agree, saying, “We need to be in a place where people feel free to express themselves and not to be intimidated by political correctness – it’s destroying our nation.”
Politicians are beginning to speak to the anti-PC base. Politicians like Ben Carson and Donald Trump speak to a growing number of Americans who truly feel as though they’re being unfairly scrutinized by an overly sensitive America – an America that gives too many unfair advantages and breaks to the poor and minority groups.
A recent Tufts University study found that most white Americans believe that they have replaced African-Americans as the primary victims of racial discrimination in the United States. While both whites and blacks agree that anti-black and brown racism has decreased in recent years, many white people now believe that this progress has been linked to a new anti-white inequality. The study shows that even though minorities consistently display greater disparities in income, home ownership, health, and employment, many whites still fear that the imposition of political correctness and programs like affirmative action represent an attack on White cultural values and norms. This has created the perfect political climate for nominating a scapegoat.
The call against political correctness works similarly to the tried-and-true Southern strategy that pits poor whites against equally poor minority groups. In past and current politics, offensive language is used to arouse the emotions in a base of poorly-educated white lower-middle class by appealing to their fear of “the other.”
Inflammatory language surely has an effect on public opinion. According to a 2015 Pew Research poll 41% of Americans overall view immigrants as a societal burden. It’s important to remember that immigration has been steadily declining since 2007. However, the percent of Republicans who view immigrants as a burden jumped from 48% in March of 2014 to over 63% by May of 2015. The percent of Democrats who view immigrants as a burden has remained at 32%.
The use of coded language often works as a first line of defense against inflammatory statements. While the American right prefers to use terms like “illegal immigrant,” the left tends to defend the use of the term “undocumented immigrant.” Politically correct statements are used to humanize otherwise dehumanizing terms. However, language used without the proper context allows people to dehumanize “the other” – referring to a group of people as “illegal” invokes a theme of inherent criminality to immigrants or foreigners.
We now have politicians who are actively advocating for the use of terms like “illegal alien,” or “anchor baby.” They are often portrayed as straight shooters who tell it like it is. The public had evolved to admonish sweeping generalizations about certain ethnic groups and religions but has now been split with one half galvanized by an all-American defiance of political-correctness, determined to derail the healthy conversations about race, immigration, and society that should follow this evolution.