The Slatest

When Did People Start Calling Things “Racially Charged”?

About 50 years ago.

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman in a scene from Roseanne.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Rose via Getty Images.

Roseanne Barr’s sitcom was canceled Tuesday in the aftermath of her tweet comparing former White House aide Valerie Jarrett to what would happen if the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.” While many news outlets declared the message racist, some chose to call it “racially charged” instead. When did people start calling things “racially charged”?

About 50 years ago. The phrase started to appear in newspapers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not as a euphemism for racist but rather to describe a situation—or, more often, an “atmosphere”—produced by racist acts or racial tensions. In 1959, the Associated Press deployed the phrase in the context of the racist treatment of two small boys in North Carolina who had been arrested the year before for playing a kissing game with a white girl. When civil rights lawyers secured a habeas corpus hearing on the boys’ behalf, the AP said that it “should clear the racially charged atmosphere” surrounding the case. (There were straighter, euphemistic uses too, as in this 1960 article’s characterization of that era’s “racially-charged atmosphere of Mississippi.”)

The New York Times began to call things racially charged in 1968. In particular, the paper repeatedly described a teacher’s strike that year as a “racially charged dispute.” At issue was a conflict between local control of schools in a predominantly black neighborhood and the employment rights of (mostly white, Jewish) teachers who had already been teaching there. By the early 1970s, the phrase appeared often in articles about forced school integration—a “racially charged issue.” One 1974 article on busing in Boston managed to describe the situation as being at once “racially charged,” “emotionally charged,” and “charged politically.”

The habit of calling things “politically charged,” meanwhile, dates back even earlier. More than a decade before the Times referred to the integration of public schools as a “racially charged” issue, the paper called it a “politically charged” one. More generically charged atmospheres were already well established by this point: A newspaper might describe the “highly charged atmosphere” at a 1920s baseball game at Ebbets Field, for example, as one that led to pugnacious outbursts such as “Is that so?” or “Where do you think you are, the Polo Grounds?”

Before atmospheres were charged metaphorically, of course, they were charged electrically. In the first decade of the 20th century, scientists thought a literally charged atmosphere might stimulate the growth of vegetables or even children. A 1911 news report described a Swedish experiment on two sets of schoolchildren: One group of kids were taught for several years in an electrically charged room, while the others learned in a nonelectric one. “The electrified children have outstripped the others mentally and physically,” the paper said.

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