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Krugman’s Vocabulary Needs an Upgrade

Paul Krugman’s “Voodoo Economics, The Next Generation” does not make any more sense today than it did back in 1980 when presidential candidate G. W. Bush used this term to criticize Ronald Reagan’s claim that cutting taxes on the rich would actually – “magically” lead to greater economic growth.

It remains as derogatory now as it was then. As several Times readers noted in their comments to Krugman, the terminology is passé and fails to convey its actual point. One pleaded with him to stop using this term because it doesn’t mean anything. He wrote “… [these words] sound good but it doesn’t tell people what is wrong with the tax cut slogan.” Others piped in, myself included, noting that it is problematic for other reasons. The fact is that most people still have antiquated notions of the religion that this stereotype evokes. Alas! Comments have such limited readership.

Call me overly sensitive. The use of this term threw my epistemic violence sensibility meter so completely out of whack Monday morning that it was virtually impossible for me to get through the piece and follow what the Nobel Laureate (whom I actually like to read sometimes) had to say. No wonder, as Tim Worstall eloquently noted in Forbes this term is a “rhetorical misdirection.”

Indeed, with its direct references to the most archaic of tropes (black magic, cult, inward-looking or progress-resistant, vindictiveness) Krugman’s “Voodoo Economics, The Next Generation” shows a socially limited attachment to an outdated term. His column could not make it any clearer why the New York Times, which has been repeatedly petitioned over this terminology by concerned individuals and collectives over the years, needs to revise its style sheet. The Haitian Vodou religion is not Krugman’s voodoo.

One of the earliest letters to the editor about misrepresentation of the religion was published on January 5, 1917. Titled “Injustice to Haitians,” it was written by anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons who stressed “the journalistic display of contempt for another people and of utter irresponsibility should not pass unnoticed.” Parsons was responding to an article with a slew of horrific headlines including “Voodoo Practices Demand for Sacrifice of a White Child.”

Words matter. Their significations do not simply disappear because we will them away. And in the last two months NYT editors in particular have come to know this only too well. The portrayal of Mike Brown as “no angel” and Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” are indications of how blackness configures in mainstream white imagination to paraphrase Toni Morrison. The voodoo economics redux is yet another example of a structural predisposition that continues to deny blacks complexity, hoarding it as the sole property of whites.

The NYT needs to hit the refresh button (to paraphrase Dan Morse) and stop confounding voodoo with Vodou. The fact is that others have actually already done so.

In October 2012, in response to the long-term efforts of a collective based in Haiti and abroad, the Library of Congress changed its subject heading from voodoo to Vodou because the former is pejorative. They recognized that our history left us with particularly racially charged and cruel notions of blackness that continue to differentially mark us structurally and individually in the most penalizing and hurtful ways. Indeed, it was time that an institution devoted to learning choose to leave the stereotypes behind and join the 21st century.

It is high time that the Times consider doing the same.

Gina Athena Ulysse is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wesleyan University.

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