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Laura Coates’ Linguistic Move

Amid several notable responses, CNN legal analyst Laura Coates made a great linguistic move on air the day of Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. In response to Barr’s assertion that in the 1960s the Civil Rights movement succeeded in tearing down the edifice of Jim Crow, Coates rejected the terminology. She replied, instead, “I wish Jim Crow were an edifice, because then it could have been destroyed with the ease of bulldozing a building. I wish it were something tangible, because then it could have been dispensed with the ease of crumpling a piece of paper. Instead, it was not ever, and is not now, something tangible.”

Semantic Lessons

This is a bit of an overstatement. Built environments are tangible. Nonetheless, Coates’ move to shift the metaphor from an edifice to one of enduring and pernicious mental networks speaks powerfully to the reality of systemic racism. And, as Coates went on to suggest, the nation’s top cop miserably fails the accountability test. Don’t look to him for help in dismantling or overhauling a racist criminal justice system. More important, though, or at least more interesting to me, is that Coates reminds us to line up language with political goals. No matter how many edifices are bulldozed, or even monuments toppled, the bigger mission is to override all of the networks that produce racist and poverty-stricken outcomes in all aspects of American life. The monuments didn’t produce the system; the system produced the monuments. Matching our language to that fact promotes clearer thinking about overall political goals.

My brother and mentor Andrew Vachss wrote in Parade years ago that “language is the undercurrent that drives the river of public perception.” Working the battlefront of child abuse, he noted for example, that there are no child prostitutes, only prostituted children. The difference is not simply semantic; it has repercussions in terms of how cases are thought about, prosecuted, and resolved. Watch your language, he advises. Similarly, edifice language gets you edifice outcomes at best. Network language can lead to network outcomes.

More famous are examples by esteemed linguist and fire prevention inspector Benjamin Lee Whorf. On one occasion, he visited a work site at which workers were very cautious in a room where drums full of gasoline were stored. They were less cautious, even smoked cigarettes, in rooms where empty drums were stored. To the workers, empty meant less dangerous. They thought that way and spoke that way although in practical terms the highly flammable, vapor-filled “empty” drums were more dangerous given the careless behavior of the workers.

Language Lane

Coates is a deft analyst, advocate, and inspector. She knows that replacing limiting narratives is part of struggle. It’s an important lane to work.

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