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‘Legacy American’ is the latest catchphrase in the racist lexicon

Conservatives have long ridiculed liberals for their “political correctness,” characterizing it as a deliberate avoidance of unpleasant truths to promote extreme left ideology. For decades they have railed against gender-neutral pronouns, identity politics, “wokeness,” trigger warnings and cancel culture. 

Despite these protestations, however, the far-right has developed its own lexicon for discussing race, a set of buzz words and catchphrases that make bigotry sound more respectable. 

In the 1990s conservatives weaponized “political correctness” to attack liberal intellectuals allegedly policing language to promote an ideological agenda and stifle opposing views. The January 1991 cover article of the New York Magazine, provocatively titled “Are you Politically Correct?” decried the rise of new “fundamentalists” comprised of “multiculturalists, feminists, radical homosexuals, Marxists, [and] New Historicists” who insisted that “Western culture and American society are hopelessly racist, sexist, oppressive.”

Such arguments, based largely on hyperbole and anecdotal evidence, misrepresent an effort to respect diversity and promote inclusion. Political correctness recognizes that language reflects what we believe and affects how we behave. If elementary students read sentences referring to doctors, lawyers and politicians as “he,” that will discourage young women from entering into those professions. If calling an adult male a “boy” is unacceptable, referring to a grown woman as a “girl” is equally offensive. But critics saw inclusive language as ideologically driven and an attack on free speech.

Politicians quickly glommed on to what began as academic debate. Since the Democrats promoted civil rights, affirmed action and gender equality, Republicans labeled them peddlers of political correctness. No politician made greater use of this strawman than Donald Trump, who employed it to deflect criticism from his own outrageous statements and mobilize angry white voters. 

While political correctness has been identified with the left, conservatives have been master manipulators of language to suit their political needs. During the Oct. 11, 2000, presidential debate, the moderator asked then-Gov. George W. Bush if “gays and lesbians should have the same rights as other Americans.” “Yes. I don’t think they ought to have special rights,” he answered, “but I think they ought to have the same rights.” 

With a clever turn of phrase, Bush dodged the question while appearing to answer it and reframed the debate. LGBQ rights were not “equal rights” or “human rights,” they were “special rights.” Once elected president, Bush supported an amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Nowhere has coded language been used more effectively to hide the truth than in the far right’s effort to promote its narrow vision of American identity. Extremist groups, unaffiliated individuals and even mainstream politicians insist that the United States is a white Christian nation. Rather than openly vilify minorities, however, they employ euphemisms to make racism sound less offensive. 

Identity Evropa, for example, frames its racist rhetoric in innocuous-sounding terms. “Our main objective,” its mission statement proclaims, “is to create a better world for people of European heritage — particularly in America — by peacefully effecting cultural change.” The group eschews racist language and denies emphatically that it advocates white supremacy. “We do not believe White people should rule over non-White people,” it maintains. “Rather, we are ethno-pluralists: We believe that all ethnic and racial groups should have somewhere in the world to call home — a place wherein they can fully express themselves and enjoy self-determination.” The message is clear: People of color don’t belong in the United States.

Proud Boys have also taken great pains to phrase their bigotry politely. They not only avoid explicitly racist terms but have an antibias statement. “We do not discriminate based upon race or sexual orientation/preference,” they insist. Their agenda says otherwise. They hide their misogyny behind the claim to be “venerating the housewife,” and their racism beneath the cloak of “reinstating the Spirit of Western Chauvinism.”

Coded bigotry is not confined to extremist groups and their followers. Conservative politicians also use it to “get away with racism and sexism.”

In July 2020, Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn) declared “The Democrat ‘Black Lives Matter’ Party, along with armies of rioters, are at war with our country, our beliefs and Western culture.” When people of color march, they are “rioters and looters.” When white people do the same thing, they are peaceful demonstrators.

In August 2019, Trump declared: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” He invoked the well-established antisemitic trope that Jews cannot be loyal Americans. The great critic of political correctness had his own version of it.

Now Tucker Carlson has added a new term to the coded racism lexicon: “Legacy Americans.” In a September broadcast, Carlson accused President Biden of encouraging immigration of non-Europeans to dilute the voting power of Euro-Americans. 

In political terms,” he asserted, “this policy is called ‘the great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries.” “The Great Replacement,” is a white supremacist conspiracy theory that dark-skinned, non-European people are replacing those of European descent. Neo-Nazis expressed a version of this theory when they chanted “Jews will not replace us” during their tiki torch parade at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. The man who murdered 51 Muslims in Christ Church, New Zealand and the one, who killed 21 in an El Paso, Texas Walmart also subscribed to replacement theory.

While replacement theory is decades old, “legacy Americans” is a relatively new term. Carlson did not define it, but his meaning seems clear from the context. He is referring to white Americans whose ancestors have lived in the country for a long time, the people he and his followers consider “real Americans.” 

With an average of 4.33 million viewers during the second quarter of 2020, Carlson’s show gained the largest audience in the history of cable news. The failure of Fox News to take any action in response to his racist comments shows how mainstream such views have become. Coded racism works. 

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”

Tags Anti-black racism in the United States Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally Conservative Donald Trump Federal Marriage Amendment Jim Hagedorn Joe Biden liberals politically correct Proud Boys The Great Replacement Tucker Carlson

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