Political season is great for linguists. It’s usually a playground of rhetoric, discourse, and weird terms that come into common parlance. This season is no different. Recently, Donald Trump has dug a deeper hole for himself in the debates by saying, at the second debate, “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Hillary Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans” (transcript). This linguistic gaffe, despite being commented on by people on social media and the news, was repeated once again at the final debate when Trump said, “I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos [than] she could ever do in 10 lifetimes. All [Hillary Clinton] has done is talk to the African-Americans and to the Latinos” (transcript).
Many people took to social media to complain about this usage (for examples see: Workneh, 2016 & Murphy, 2016). For the most part, this was a minor part of the current talk around the debates. Workneh points out in her article that the more offensive part was the rhetoric he used when talking about black Americans1, though she notes that “the African-Americans” is certainly not separated from it. Murphy claims that this is a “dog whistle” for rural white voters that may carry racist sentiments (more on this in a future post). However, I believe it highlights something about Trump that people have been saying for awhile; That is, he is significantly divorced from the reality of everyday Americans and does not know how to act, and this is reflected in the language he uses to refer to groups that are outside of what he knows (aka minorities).
Why is this the case? Well, the use of the definite article ‘the’ coupled with a plural noun phrase (NP) signals, according to Acton (2014), that,
the dividing lines in the domain of discourse [are] more salient, foregrounding questions of speaker membership, and, given their close competition with first-person forms, which have the speaker (more precisely, speech act agent) built into their denotation, they tend to invite an inference of speaker nonmembership in the relevant group. (p.84)
This takes a bit of explanation. Acton (2014) asks us to consider the following situation, wherein there are two people having a conversation: Bauer, a German (with non-native English); and Jones, a native English speaker from North America. It is clear that Jones is from North America, but it is not clear to Bauer whether he is from the U.S. or Canada. Bauer remarks that she recently took a trip to the U.S. and was amazed at how many people owned a car. Jones, in reply, says, “The Americans do love their cars!”. For native English speakers, this signals immediately as to what country Jones comes from. Why is this the case? Well, Acton (2014), in order to figure this out, lays out a framework in his dissertation that essentially does the following: a.) utterances contain meaning entailed meaning and non-entailed (or associated) meaning; b.) that an utterance is contextual, and gains meaning not only from itself but from things that could’ve been said; c.) that these alternatives themselves gain significance from how well they fit into the discourse and our expectations; and d.) that an utterance has “special significance” when it violates our “conversational expectations” (p. 51). He applies this framework to the use of the with NP complements in Chapter 2 of his dissertation. There is a complex relationship between an utterance and the context: not only the setting in which an utterance took place but also the ideologies and cultural background of those participating in the discourse.
Murphy (2016) gets close to the issue of why saying the African-Americans sounds wrong when she notes that “[using] ‘The’ makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals.” However, it doesn’t to me to necessarily get at what really makes the African-Americans such a faux pas. Sometimes using the doesn’t refer to a “grouping”, such as when it comes to the use of ‘the’, as in the phrase “the wife.” Nor is it the case that removing it inserts a level of individualization, as in saying “Humans.” Acton (2014) points out that the works, “to pick out particular individuals in a given situation” (p. 69). That is, for a given situation, using the with a noun phrase indicates that a particular individual or group of individuals satisfies the context. If there is only one dog in a situation, it would be infelicitous to say the dogs and vice versa. Further, this doesn’t always seem to be so bad. For instance, we refer to other nations’ people with the as in the Russians or the Saudis. So, on the face of it I don’t think that people are reacting to the phrase solely because it has to do with generalization or the grouping of people.
However, Murphy (2016) seems to align with an Actonian analysis of the African-Americans in that she states that, “[Trump] is demonstrating to those voters that he is keeping other groups distanced—that, like them, he sees African-Americans and Latinos as something over there, in the inner cities (and the White House), rather than as millions of individual Americans with as much invested in the future of this country as its white citizens.” (para. 10). But the difference, as I’ve pointed out, is not that black Americans are painted with a broad stroke—hell, we do it all the time in political discourse—but that the reason relates to “nonmembership.”
What’s the difference between saying African-Americans and the African-Americans? Acton (2014) makes the case that what are called bare plurals (BPs), or plurals with no definite article like the, don’t make any reference to individual-level parts of a group. Group membership is highlighted by using the by the fact that the refers to individual-level members of a particular group as a whole. It picks out, hence the name, a definite group of people in the world. BPs on the other hand, do not make any particular statement about the individual-level, and instead refer to indeterminate things in general ways (Acton, 2014, pp. 73-78). Thus, when we say “Dogs bark when nervous,” it is wholly different from say “My dogs bark when nervous” because the latter indicates a definite group of dogs, whereas the former is making a general statement.
In the same sense, we do this with us and them, where the implication of group membership is clear; the speaker isn’t a part of them. The beauty of using a definite article like the is that it gains this implication not in the meaning of the itself, but by being conjoined with a NP and the context of the utterance. So in the conversation earlier, it would be highly unusual for Jones to say the Americans if he were an American himself. However, even if he were an American, saying “Americans do love their cars” would not immediately tell us which country he comes from. The definiteness in using the marks a stance that the speaker has towards another group, whereas not using it gives no indication to the fact. What could Jones have said instead? Well, for one, he could’ve said, “We do love our cars.” Here it would similarly be clear what nationality he was. In the same tune, saying “They do love their cars” indicates that he is not a member of the group “American.” The BP Americans is not even in competition here; it could easily substitute for both despite the speaker’s actual nationality. Thus, NPs with the definite article the are in direct competition with first-person pronoun alternatives, whereas BPs are not (Acton, 2014). What does this mean? Well it makes a clear indication of where the speaker stands in relation to the group they are mentioning. In the case of Donald Trump, it is clear that when he says the African-Americans, he is distancing himself from them in terms of group membership. Consider what he could have said instead:
A. African-Americans: Bare plural, no necessary stance in group membership.
B. Them: Removes group category, also sets the group apart.
C. Blacks: Touchy term considering his public stance, but a bare plural nonetheless.
D. The blacks: Might be a double whammy in terms of reference.
E. The black community: Safer, since the term of reference is community rather than blacks.
F. The African-American community: Same as E, except with possible rhetorical implications (see footnote 1).
G. Those people: Introduces demonstrative with distal meaning, removes label from group.
Part of the reason I believe Trump shows his true colors is because there are a multiplicity of terms he could have used, and that there is mild discussion around his saying “the African-Americans” because it is marked, yet not the worst thing he could have said.
Now, to the point of discussion. I disagree with Murphy (2016) that this is a racist “dog-whistle” for poor, non-urban whites. Is it racist? Yes. The term dog-whistle to me generally means that it is intentional, however. Of course, not every instance of the is an instance where there is a clear “othering” of a group. Acton (2014) makes the note that there is a reason why the Californians doesn’t sound as bad as the gays, and that is that there are certain phrases that are used frequently enough to warrant a negative mental response. I go a bit further here and say that it is not a coincidence that we treat Russians the same as we treat minorities in this instance; it is simply the case that minority groups with the definite article the provoke a negative response precisely because of the pragmatic implications outlined above, which have been reinforced over time by the majority white linguistic community. Murphy (2016) points out that it just “feels different” and that is for good reason.
So, it is not just racist. I think it is indicative of a broader mindset that Trump just so happens to appeal to. I think it is blindingly apparent to many that Donald Trump lives in a very different world from the rest of us. He lives in high-rise suites, flies private jets, eats the finest foods, and just generally has no want for money (despite what he says) as those who live in the middle class and lower income demographics. He simply cannot understand what it is the rest of us normal folks are doing every day, or how much that might cost. His recent proposal for a childcare tax break sounds great until you realize it is only around $1200 a year. That doesn’t even cover diapers, let alone the massive cost of raising a child. Thus, we see in him as someone who has no conception of life “on the ground,” and instead is in a world of executives, ass-kissers, and golden chairs. In the same sense, white Americans have very little understanding of what it is like to be a minority in America. Even Newt Gingrich has admitted that, “[white Americans] instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” and that “we’ve stalled out on the cultural, economic, practical progress we needed.” This is really where the intersection between Donald Trump and his voting bloc come in; they are both disconnected from understanding minority life. If Trump can barely comprehend what a middle class/lower-income white American is going through, you can double that for black Americans and Latinxs. He sees them as not being educated, as living in inner cities, and as not respecting authority. He doesn’t understand black Americans make up 20% of rural and suburban areas. He doesn’t understand the diversity that make up what we call the black community and the Hispanic community, as voiced by the frustrations of Workneh (2016) and the people whose social media posts she includes in her article. Trump appeals to white, rural Americans because they don’t understand minorities either, and he has the backing of rich elites because they don’t understand the life of someone below a certain tax bracket. The use of the in reference to minorities is just a subconscious expression of his understanding: a linguistic dogtag for the over-privileged and the ignorant. He simply has no idea that, in our context, the means something. He is perfectly capable of using BPs to refer to these groups (as seen in the transcripts), but sometimes he lets it shine through. Given the setting of these debates, it is clear that he thinks that Americans share this sentiment with him, and it seems that at least some of them do considering where he is at. Is he speaking to them? Probably not consciously, though the sentiment is the same. In the end, the is just a word. However, it is a word that, when used in the way Trump has used it, signals that while we have come a long way in creating a truly equal society, at the same time we still have very much that needs to be done.
Acton, E. (2014). Pragmatics and the social meaning of determiners (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University). Retrieved from https://www.emich.edu/english/faculty/documents/suthesisacton.pdf
Murphy, L. (2016, October 11). Linguistics explains why Trump sounds racist when he says “the” African Americans. Quartz. Retrieved from http://qz.com/806174/second-presidential-debate-linguistics-explains-why-donald-trump-sounds-racist-when-he-says-the-african-americans/
Workneh, L. (2016, October 20). Donald Trump really needs to quit saying the ‘African Americans.’ The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-really-needs-to-quit-saying-the-african-americans_us_58084053e4b0b994d4c43831
- When using other people’s words, I use the phrase African American. However, when writing my own words or paraphrasing, I use black Americans. This is in an attempt to avoid the bias that Hall, Phillips, and Townsend (2015) show exists in the usage of black v. African-American. This is also how movements such as Black Lives Matter identify themselves, and as such I am in no place to consistently use terminology that is at-odds with that line of thought. References: Hall, E., Phillips, K.W., & Townsend, S. (2015) A rose by any other name?: The consequences of subtyping “African- Americans” from “Blacks.” The Journal of Experimental Psychology, 56, 183-190. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2014.10.004
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