Thursday, March 20, 2014

Prejudice ("Dog Whistle Politics" by Ian Haney Lopez)

Earlier this year, Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, taped a post-game interview in which he called out a player from the opposing team and pronounced himself "the best corner in the game," adding, "Don't open your mouth about the best, or I'm going to shut it for you real quick!" The video went viral, and in the days that followed it seemed as though people could focus on little else. Unfortunately, much of the public discourse made liberal use of the term "thug," an insinuation that was direct and suggestive but also--purposefully--ill-defined. Later, when he was asked about the reaction to his interview, Sherman--a Stanford graduate and the salutatorian of his high school class--responded, "The only reason it bothers me is that it seems like ["thug" is] the accepted way of calling people the n-word nowadays."* Surprisingly, Sherman's theory--delivered extemporaneously--has a rather strong basis in reality, one that helps us understand the shifting face of America over the last 50 years.

Writing about the racism of decades past, Ian Haney Lopez has little difficulty finding examples of public figures--elected democratically, supported by the American people, cherished today as American heroes--who openly and unabashedly employed racial slurs when talking about African-Americans. Decades ago, there was little shame in identifying oneself as a racist, and as Lopez himself documents, being identified as such was often necessary for some politicians to be elected. For example, when George Wallace first ran for the governorship of Alabama in 1958, he was a racial moderate pitted against an outspoken racist: Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP, while his opponent was endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan. After being handily trounced on election day, Wallace remarked to a confidant, "And I tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again." This one loss--an indication that the voters of Alabama preferred virulent bigotry to clear-eyed moderation--would forever change the political landscape of America by birthing one of the 20th century's great unrepentant roadblocks to progress and equality.

However, in the years that followed, holding racist views and harboring prejudicial tendencies became a drawback rather than a benefit for anyone running for elected office. The media became more diligent in rooting out and confronting those who espoused vile, outdated ideas related to ethnicity, and now, in the age of social media, when a single gaffe or verbal slip becomes a worldwide sensation in mere minutes, public officials are increasingly scrutinized for their views on race, and rightly so. But while our culture has changed, our electorate--at least in some rather large circles--has not. There are still wide swathes of voters who hold the beliefs of George Wallace to be self-evident, that all men are not created equal, and sadly, these people number in the millions. Sadder still, they are reliable voters who are identified almost singularly by their attachment to one of our country's two major parties:  The Republican Party.

Lopez goes to great pains to qualify his remarks and underscore the fact that not all Republicans are racist, just as he strives to note that not all Democrats are immune from intolerant ideas or race-based pandering. But statistically and historically speaking, it is the Republican Party that has not only appropriated what Lopez calls "dog whistle" politics--that is, the use of sly code words and clever phrasing to make racist entreaties to particularly receptive groups without actually sounding racist--but transformed it into the ultimate political weapon, sharp enough to energize its base while also remaining dull enough to pass by a thorough, scandal-hungry press. Two of the most frequently employed code words, "welfare recipient" and "food stamp recipient," are weighed down with racial implications--the idea that those on government assitance are lazy, fraudulent, and often drug-addicted minorities, a stereotype that has its roots in Ronald Reagan's first run for the presidency more than thirty years ago. However, the caricature has become so ingrained in our collective subconscious that politicians don't ever need mention the ethnicity of those being referenced, and when confronted with accusations of race-baiting, they have distance and deniability, claiming they were simply talking about "entitlement reform" or our nation's growing budgetary crisis.

For decades this tactic has shown itself to be quite successful for Republican candidates:  Reagan's Cadillac-driving welfare queen; George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad; the rebranding of immigrants as "aliens" and "illegals" during the presidency of George W. Bush; Newt Gingrich complaining that "poor children in poor neighborhoods" have no "habits of working" and should be employed by schools to scrub toilets; Paul Ryan stating that "inner city culture" makes men unable to think "about working or learning the value and the culture of work"; and so on, ad nauseam. In each instance, these politicians--all Republicans, all with national name recognition, all seeking or holding the highest offices--used loaded, dog-whistle terms in order to get a point across to their voters that, while they could not specifically comment on the habits and predispositions of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans and other non-Republicans, a few double-edged words could sooth any confusion about where they stood ethnicity-wise.

However, all of these examples pale in comparison to the now-infamous 2012 video of Mitt Romney speaking to a supposedly press-free gathering of his supporters: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax." In just a few short breaths, the nation's leading Republican managed to utilize an impressive slew of dog-whistle words--dependent, victim, entitled--to explain away the massive support Barack Obama had among the young, the poor, and the non-white. In Romney's skewed view of the world, anyone who supported the incumbent president--a Democrat, a liberal, an African-American--was weak, lazy, immoral, lecherous, or all of the above.

In the inevitable fallout over Romney's remarks, the press harangued the candidate over his detachment from how millions of Americans actually lived--a condition, they implied, resulting from a comfortable, sheltered upbringing. Romney did not understand that the men and women who claimed to be victims might actually suffer from a system built against them, keeping them away from financial independence and stability because of their skin, their gender, or the place where they were raised. Romney did not understand that those who use food stamps do so not because they're unwilling to work but because the American economy has been so thoroughly corrupted that getting a meaningful job is actually less beneficial than simply going on government assistance. Romney did not understand that 47% of Americans are free from income tax, not because they've found enough convenient loopholes for themselves, but because they do not make enough money to pay an income tax, even if they're working multiple jobs.**

What the press neglected to focus on was how the Republican Party had commandeered the English language--common, everyday words without any racial undertones--and weaponized it, using it time and again to dehumanize millions of their fellow citizens by depicting them as unmotivated, ungrateful, and dangerous, and always couched in racial undertones. The words they use are picks and shovels chipping away at the land we share until a river divides us, and those on one shore are allowed to look across at the other shore and pronounce the division unfair. By refusing to see other people for what they are and instead see them only as a series of words--dependent, victim, welfare recipient, illegal--we remove their humanity and make them less than us. They become an "other." And it's much easier to attack a nameless, stereotypical "other" than a friend, a neighbor, a family member.

At the very end of his 2012 remarks, Romney said, "[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." This is, by far, the most horrifying aspect of dog-whistle politics--the belief that those who are being demonized through an abstract code are unworthy of anyone's attention, even a president's, even though, statistically, these Americans are those most in need of attention and assistance. Romney is not entirely to blame for his own worldview; instead, it's the effect of a long-simmering change in our culture, one fed by the way in which politicians have adapted our language to fit their own selfish, inhumane ideologies. In this way, the river between us grows even wider.

*Later in the interview, Sherman added, "I know some thugs and they know I’m the furthest thing from a thug. I’ve fought that my whole life, just coming from where I come from. Just because you hear Compton, you heard Watts, cities like that you think, ‘Thug. He’s a gangster. He’s this, that, and the other.’ And then you hear Stanford and that doesn’t make sense, it’s an oxymoron. To fight it for so long, and have to hear it come up again, it’s frustrating."

**According to the Tax Policy Center, 60% of Americans who don't pay income tax are employed, which means they still contribute to Social Security and Medicare; 22% are retired; and 7% make under $20,000 annually, which is the threshold for taxation.