When Donald Trump talks about black and Latino people, he does something unusual — he uses the word “the” before the names of these racial and ethnic groups.
Here’s what he said Wednesday night during the third and final presidential debate against Hillary Clinton
“We don’t take care of our veterans. We take care of illegal immigrants better than we take care of our military. That can’t happen. Our policemen and women are disrespected. We need law and order, but we need justice too. Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education, they have no jobs. I will do more for African Americans and Latinos than she can ever do in ten lifetimes. All she has done is talk to the African Americans and to the Latinos.”
He did the same thing in the second debate, on October 9th.
“I’m going to help the African Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African Americans.”
After the October 9 debate, linguist Lynne Murphy of the University of Sussex weighed in on Trump’s use of “the” in a piece for Quartz. In her view, it might function as coded language that signals his separation from the groups of Americans he’s talking about:
“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering”: treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group. The Nazis did it when they talked about die Juden (“the Jews”). Homophobes do it when they talk about “the gays.”
It’s understandable that many have seized upon Trump’s unusual speech patterns here, because voters don’t have much other material to work with when it comes to his views about race in America. He has stated repeatedly that African Americans live in “the inner city,” which he describes as a hellscape of violence, where education is across-the-board terrible or nonexistent. He’s expressed his enthusiasm for the revival of stop and frisk, a policing program that illegally discriminated against black and Latino people. But he has not made any detailed policy proposals.