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Daily News Lessons (show all)

Racism, coded language and the "politics of distraction" in U.S. history

July 18, 2019

Directions: Read the summary, watch the videos and answer the discussion questions below. You may want to turn on the “CC” (closed-captions) function and read along with the transcript here.

Summary: President Donald Trump’s tweets about four female members of the U.S. House of Representatives have launched fierce debate about whether his meaning was racist. There is no doubt, though, that his words echo threats and insults that have been lobbed against perceived outsiders in America for generations. To explore the painful history, NewsHour’s William Brangham talks to the University of Minnesota’s Erika Lee and UC-Berkeley’s Ian Haney Lopez.

“We have a political leader who, for his own benefit and for the benefit of his party, sees himself as leading the country further into division and hatred and violence,” Lopez stated, adding that, “At the very moment that this is so treacherous, it’s also an opportunity, because President Trump is making clear, through his actions, a dynamic that has actually plagued our country for the last 50 years since the civil rights movement.” Trump denies his tweets to the Congresswomen, which involved him saying they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” were racist. All four lawmakers are American citizens; three were born in the U.S.

Discussion questions:

1) Essential question: Why does racist coded language continue to be a problem in the U.S.?

2) What does the expression “dog whistle” mean? What about “coded language”? If you hear a person using racist or coded language, what are some things you might say in response? Sometimes it is hard to know what to say under such circumstances. Hearing such words can be very upsetting. Why might it be a good idea to tell an adult you trust or a friend about language that makes you uncomfortable?

3) Why did the vote on a House resolution against Trump’s tweets fall along party lines?

4) Do you agree with the House resolution condemning Trump’s tweets as racist? Explain your response.

5) What does Erika Lee mean by the “politics of distraction”? What other current events or issues are taking place in the U.S. in which the “politics of distraction” may be a useful tool for Trump?

6) Trump remarked to a reporter this week that he was pleased with how the debate went forward this week. How might sowing social division and acrimony among the electorate affect Election 2020? How does Trump see division as an opportunity, according to Ian Haney Lopez?

7) Media literacy: Why do you think NewsHour’s William Brangham started his interview out by stating that he and his guests were not going to debate whether or not Trump’s tweets were racist?

Extension activities:

1. Both guests from the NewsHour video discussed the idea that racism and threats or insults have been lobbed against perceived outsiders in America for generations. What other examples from history do you know of where people used such language or enacted policy that was discriminatory? If you’re not sure, how could you find out?

2. You may want to read Wednesdays’ Associated Press article: AP fact check: Trump assails and misquotes Omar at rally and watch part of the press conference of the four U.S. House members responding to Trump’s racist tweets: 

3. Check out this daily news story from Classroom’s new #SuperCivics2020 series: How to get along with our political opposites, which focuses on how Americans are struggling to approach opposing political opinions with civility instead of contempt and what can be done to fix the polarization problem.