On September 21 2022, screenshots of a Truth Social post referencing New York state attorney general Letitia “Peekaboo” James and attributed to former United States President Donald Trump began circulating; it was quickly shared to Reddit’s r/WhitePeopleTwitter:
For context, New York state attorney general Letitia James held a press conference on September 21 2022. During the conference, James disclosed that the state was filing suit against Trump and three of his children:
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“This conduct cannot be brushed aside and dismissed as some sort of good-faith mistake,” James told reporters Wednesday [September 21 2022].
“No one, my friend, is above the law,” she added.
A screenshot of a September 21 2022 tweet by @BettyBowers was attached to the Reddit post, articulating a common claim about the word “peekaboo” in that context. Commentary attributed to Trump in the screenshot read:
Attorney General Letitia “Peekaboo” James, a total crime fighting disaster in New York, is spending all of her time fighting for very powerful and well represented banks and insurance companies, who were fully paid, made a lot of money, and never had a complaint about me, instead of fighting murder and violent crime, which is killing New York State. She is a failed A.G. whose lack of talent in the fight against crime is causing record numbers of people and companies to flee New York. Bye, bye!
Is there a backstory to Trump using “Peekaboo”? Or is it just a random synapse misfire from a douchey racist? pic.twitter.com/9H9DmP9GcY
— ResponsibleDispatchHat (@Popehat) September 21, 2022
You can lay money on Trump using Peekaboo as substitute for another that starts with J and ends with boo… that, along with her last name, is his full nickname for her.
Because he is a fucking pig.
— Hal Sparks (@HalSparks) September 21, 2022
Stop saying stuff like “racist undertones.” Trump calling Letitia James “Peekaboo” is racist. Like how Trump calling Liz Warren “Pocahontas” was racist. He’s just racist.
— The Volatile Mermaid (@OhNoSheTwitnt) September 22, 2022
When Trump calls Leticia James “Peekaboo” is this what he really means? 👇🏽 pic.twitter.com/SOKil10Ljk
— Julie B(rooklyn) Multi Racial Resister🇺🇸🇯🇲😷 (@JMeanypants) September 22, 2022
Using code words similar, but not identical, to racial slurs is a common rhetorical practice among white supremacists on social media in order to evade moderation, bans, or unwanted attention. In May 2020, Vice.com published an explainer the practice following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery — at a time when the covert practice was becoming more open:
White supremacists have a new code for the n-word. It’s “jogger” — a direct reference to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the young black man who was shot dead in February  while he was running in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia.
They’ve celebrated Arbery’s death in the worst places on the internet, and turned his killers — a retired cop and his son — into white supremacist folk heroes.
Over recent years, online extremists have been constructing a shared, private language that they use to dog-whistle in public, online arenas without having to worry about getting banned for hate speech. “Jogger” is just the latest example.
“Jogger” became so widely used in that context that its Wiktionary definition was preceded by the following:
jog + -er. The ethnic slur is a reference to Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed by three white assailants while jogging in 2020. It is used mostly on the Internet as a substitute for the word n*****, where it bypasses most filters or bots that restrict certain keywords.
In March 2019, we examined similar discourse about hand signals, quoting video essayist and debunker Natalie Wynn, who does a web series under the name ContraPoints. In her assessment of the strategy (and its ability to muddy the discursive waters), she explained how the practice persists with gaslighting and protestations of innocence:
Popular YouTube channel ContraPoints, whose host explains political and social issues, addressed the issue in a September 2017 video titled “Decrypting the Alt-Right: How to Recognize a [email protected]” At the 10:10 mark, host Natalie Wynn discusses “Secret Symbols” and “innocuous emoji.” Wynn addresses the trolling aspect at approximately 11 minutes in, noting here that the “OK sign” is not inherently racist, but notes how the normative nature of random symbols like the gesture are a jumping-off point for claims that opponents of racism find everything racist — “even the OK sign.” In a subsequent point, Wynn notes that the ambiguity is yet another functional strategy in muddying the waters around discourse about white nationalism.
On February 1 2022, NPR published a story headlined, “Trump escalates racist rhetoric and plays on white grievance at recent rallies,” incidentally mentioning that Trump’s recent spate of racist dogwhistles appeared to be prompted in part by the same investigation spearheaded by AG James in New York:
Specifically, there are criminal investigations in New York — looking into his company’s finances, particularly the pattern and practice of allegedly wildly inflating and deflating the value of his properties when it suited his financial interests; and in Georgia — for his pressure campaign to overturn the results of the election he lost in the state by nearly 12,000 votes.
The three prosecutors with specific investigations in both states — the New York district attorney, the state attorney general and a Georgia DA — are all Black.
With that context, this is how Trump referred to them [in late January 2022] at his rally, while also wrapping in his election lie: “If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere, because our country and our elections are corrupt. They’re corrupt.”
He’s already laying the groundwork to dismiss their work, just as he did months ahead of the election he lost fair and square.
And he’s doing it by questioning their motivations because of their race, just as he did nearly six years ago when he felt a judge was being unfair to him because of his “Mexican heritage.”
Google Trends data for September 22 2022 evidenced how clear and effective Trump’s purported “peekaboo” messaging was in a search for “Trump peekaboo.” Terminology in “Related Queries” and “Related Searches” demonstrated that social media users identified the unused slur with “Breakout” levels of popularity in all ten slots:
As for whether Trump described New York’s Attorney General as “Letitia ‘Peekaboo’ James” in a September 21 2022 Truth Social post, he did. In fact, Trump reiterated the soundalike slur at least once more, on September 22 2022, in a post that said:
Racist A.G. Letitia “Peekaboo” James, the failed Gubernatorial candidate, is now running second to strong crime fighter MICHAEL HENRY. This could be a big upset because she has been a terrible A.G. when it comes to protecting the people of New York State. Murder, Rape, and Drugs are totally out of control-There has never been a more dangerous time than this. She is grossly incompetent, her staff knows it, and so does everyone else. MAKE NEW YORK SAFE AGAIN!!!
Purported screenshots of a Truth Social post in which former U.S. President Donald Trump referenced “Letitia ‘Peekaboo’ James” circulated on other social media platforms, alongside widespread speculation that Trump used a word intended to reference a racist slur. White supremacist usage of code words and symbols was a well known practice, and steganography continues to be the subject of significant ongoing analysis.