Democrats and Dog Whistles

Ever since the Republicans adopted a Southern Strategy to gain political momentum after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans have become highly attuned to racist “dog whistles” in politics. And so for example, when Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi (where 3 civil rights workers were murdered in 1964) and focused his speech on defending “states rights,” he sent a message that was loud and clear to both Southern racists and African Americans without ever having to be explicit.

As we fast forward to 2008 and the election of this country’s first African American president, the racism wasn’t so hidden when a group of tea partiers rose up to challenge his place of birth. But in addition to the more blatant form, there were plenty of dog whistles too. Here’s a reader at TPM explaining what s/he saw in 2011 when Speaker Boehner had some issues with scheduling a joint address to Congress by President Obama over the jobs crisis.

When Boehner does something like this (that no previous Speaker has done to any previous President), when he refuses to return the President’s phone call during the debt ceiling crisis, when he skips state dinners, when he refuses to definitely say that he believes the President was born in the US or is a Christian, or when Boehner coddles a member of his caucus who shout “you lie” during a Presidential address, etc one certain thing happens – black Americans notice it.

African-Americans are especially sensitive to the unprecedented disrespect that white Republicans have afforded to the first black President. Every time it happens, it ripples across black radio, black newspapers, black websites, and in conversations in black communities. It helps cement the ties that Obama has with the black community, and helps overcome whatever doubts and disappoints some may have. It reminds people who have experienced covert racism in their own lives that the President is experiencing the same kind of dehumanizing disrespect.

But it hasn’t just been the Republicans. During the 2008 Democratic primary, African Americans heard dog whistles from the Clinton campaign on a few occasions – like when Bill Clinton dismissed Obama’s win in South Carolina and when Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Obama wouldn’t be winning if he was a white man. David Love is right to suggest that Hillary Clinton can’t necessarily count on the kind of enthusiasm President Obama garnered from black voters as a result.

Any Democratic candidate for president in 2016 who wants to maintain the Obama coalition will have to avoid sending out these kinds of dog whistles. Even African Americans who have occasionally disagreed with President Obama will be tuned in to any disrespect shown to our 44th president and the ripple effect the TPM reader described above will be triggered. That doesn’t mean that no one is allowed to disagree with President Obama. But it does mean that its important to do so respectfully.

Obviously this is not something previous presidential candidates have had to pay attention to because we’ve never had an African American president before. But I’ll remind you once again that David Simon nailed it.

America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions.

That kind of leadership starts with being able to recognize and avoid the dog whistles of racism.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.