Words Can Hurt: An Investigation into How Racially Coded Language Was Advanced in Ferguson to Promote a Conservative Agenda

Date of Award

Winter 3-11-2016

Author Requested Restriction

Open Access (no embargo, no restriction)

Work Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Interdisciplinary Studies (MA)


Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Charles Williams

Second Advisor

Lawrence M. Knopp


This thesis examines the intersection between public statements and private thought surrounding a recent political event as a way to understand the discourse of race relations in America today. Ferguson. The very utterance of the word holds vastly differing meanings to differing segments of the American populace; without saying another word, images are evoked in the minds of perhaps every cultural literate in our society. This project is a survey that investigates how the art of coded language has evolved during the presidency of Barack Obama. Building upon the work of other scholars, such as Ian Haney-Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics, which lends a historicity to the field, I bring a sociological perspective to political science study by doing targeted research into the national ramifications of a recent event. The event examined is the the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black adolescent, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, and the analysis concerns the rising racial unrest that followed. As part of the analysis, the thesis provides evidence that racially coded language was used to promote a conservative ideology by key figures in the Ferguson incident, including the city’s chief political officers. The thesis next examines public officials and pundits beyond Ferguson, including national-level political figures, who have also used the incident in Ferguson to promote conservative politics through racially coded language. Chief among the textual evidence is the testimony of the police officer at the center of the affair, Darren Wilson. This case study represents the methodology by which the project explores the discourse on race in the alleged post-racial era that Barack Obama’s election was said by some to inaugurate. The project thus shows how coded language continues to remain important in appealing to particular political audiences, in turn showing how race and racism remain fundamental to critical political developments in present-day America. It goes on to conclude that an examination of this event, and reactions to it, may offer an opportunity to engage further the United States’ race question that was often studiously avoided during the presidencies of Obama’s predecessors, and, even more pointedly, during his own.