During this week’s presidential debate my social media exploded with commentary about Donald Trump’s use of the term “bad hombres.” Many linguistics immediately saw this as an example of Mock Spanish, most notably developed in Jane Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism. In the CNN panel discussion that followed the debate Trump supporters insisted that “bad hombres” is not racist and criticized Hillary Clinton supporters for being so easily offended.
This is precisely the power of Mock Spanish. White people can use Mock Spanish to position themselves as cool and funny while being able to hide behind the shield of plausible deniability against charges of racism. In the case of Trump, he was able to use “bad hombres” within a discussion of immigration policy to strategically conjured up images of violent Latinxs who are destroying nice white communities by supposedly giving heroin to white teenagers while being able to distance himself from overtly racist language.
The covert racism embedded within Trump’s use of Mock Spanish can be seen in its reception among his base. Most notably, the support he received from his supporters stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s own criticisms of Jeb Bush for using Spanish or his supporters’ criticisms of Tim Kaine for using Spanish. It was well-received by his supporters precisely because of the racializing imagery it conjured. This conjuring up of images of dangerous people of color is a common strategy used by Trump. This can be seen in his discussions of the importance of “law and order” and his descriptions of communities of color as “hell.”
While Clinton has historically also engaged in this racializing imagery—most notably through her use of the term “super-predator” in the 1990s—in her current campaign she has instead conjured up an image of a basket of deplorables who pose a new danger to the fabric of US society. She defined this basket of deplorables as “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.” Though she apologized for referring to half of Trump’s supporters in these terms, she never took back the general idea that many of Trump’s supporters were deplorable bigots.
For many liberals, Trump’s use of “bad hombres” and Clinton’s discussion of a “basket of deplorables” may seem unrelated to one another. After all, Trump was engaged in Mock Spanish designed to further marginalize the Latinx community while Clinton was speaking out against bigotry. Yet, a closer reading of Hill’s book illustrates that both of them are produced as part of what she describes as “the language of white racism,” which starts from the premise that “racism is entirely a matter of individual beliefs, intentions, and actions.” From this perspective “a racist person is a person who believes that people of color are biologically inferior to Whites, so that White privileged is deserved and must be defended.”
This framing of racism is precisely the framing being used by both defenses of Trump’s use of “bad hombres” and defenses of Clinton’s use of “basket of deplorables.” Trump supporters claim that Trump’s use of “bad hombres” is not racist because Trump is not making overtly racist claims against Latinxs nor articulating explicit beliefs about the superiority of white people over Latinxs. Similarly, Clinton supporters can claim that many of Trump’s supporters are, in fact, deplorable because of their individual bigotry thereby perpetuating the idea that racism is primarily an individual attribute of bad people rather than a system of oppression that is embedded within the very fabric of US institutions. More importantly, it also perpetuates the idea that people without these overt racist ideas (presumably those who do not see themselves as part of the basket of deplorables) are not complicit in the continued maintenance of racial inequalities.
In short, both the Republicans and Democrats frame discussions of racism through the use of the everyday language of white racism that positions racism as an attribute of individual racist beliefs and anti-racism as the absence of these individual racist beliefs. This framing of racism obscures the deep-seated nature of racial inequalities in US society that are a product of centuries of white supremacy. In some ways, this framing is especially ironic when it comes from Clinton who has discussed the importance of dismantling “systemic racism” while continuing to perpetuate the idea that racism is a problem associated with some deplorable people rather than a problem built into the fabric of US society.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Republicans and Democrats are identical. I am also not addressing the question of political tactic related to whether those of us committed to anti-racism should vote for Clinton as the lesser of two evils. What I am suggesting is that the racial understanding that permeates both presidential campaigns is informed by the same logic of white supremacy that positions racism as a problem of individuals and consequently that positions the solution to racial inequalities is at the level of individuals.
So while Trump’s use of “bad hombres” does provide an excellent example of Mock Spanish, Hill’s theorization of the everyday language of white racism offers us tools to push conversations about racism even further. It offers us tools for critically examining the limits of how racism can be discussed within mainstream society. It opens up the possibility for moving beyond the individual intent of individuals toward the effect that individual actions have as part of broader racializing processes. It shifts the point of entry to discussions of racism away from individuals and to the systems of oppression that lie at the root of racial inequalities.
Bringing this analysis to the forefront allows us to move beyond discussions of whether Trump’s use of Mock Spanish was racist or offensive and toward a focus of the societal impact of the circulation of racializing tropes of Latinxs within US society. It also allows us to move beyond discussions of how deplorable Clinton thinks Trump supporters are and toward how she plans to dismantle the systemic racism she alluded to in presidential debates. After all, it is the discussion of how to dismantle the systemic racism that benefits both deplorable and admirable white people that will pave the way for a more racially equitable future.