Following the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement, people of color have developed a keen sense of how racism went underground and is now often transmitted via dog whistles. It is no longer acceptable to openly use racial slurs (except, of course, among the white nationalist crowd), but there are subtle ways that people of color are excluded and dismissed every day. On the left, we sometimes like to think that this kind of thing only comes from conservatives. But any person of color will tell you that is not true.

Watching last night’s debate, a dog whistle sounded early in Bernie Sanders’ opening statement. I doubt that most white people noticed. But I also suspect that it was pretty clear to people of color who were watching. Here’s what he said (with just a bit of context):

Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process. And they’re giving up on the political process because they understand the economy is rigged.

They are working longer hours for low wages. They’re worried about the future of their kids, and yet almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. Not what America is supposed to be about. Not the fairness that we grew up believing that America was about.

Take a moment to reflect on who is included in the “we” he’s referring to in that last sentence. People of color have never been under the illusion that America is about fairness. That is exactly what they have been fighting for over these last 250 years.

I’m not suggesting that what Sanders said was racist. That all depends on how broadly or narrowly you define the word. But it was a subtle dismissal of the very real history of people of color in this country.

That is essentially how Charles Blow described a similar statement Sanders made recently.

In Sanders’s speech following the Iowa caucuses, he veered from his position that this country “in many ways was created” on “racist principles,” and instead said: “What the American people understand is this country was based and is based on fairness.” Nonwhite people in this country understand that as a matter of history and heritage this simply isn’t true, but it is a hallowed ideal for white America and one that centers the America ethos.

Indeed, the current urgency about inequality as an issue is really about how some white Americans are coming to live an experience that many minorities in this country have long lived — structural inequity has leapt the racial barrier — and that the legacy to which they fully assumed they were heirs is increasingly beyond their grasp.

Inequality has been a feature of the African-American condition in this country since the first black feet touched this ground.

As this country continues to move towards a day when white people are a minority, we’re going to have to learn to check our assumptions for the ways in which they are centered on our white history and experience. As David Simon said after the last presidential election:

America is different now, more so with every election cycle…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…

We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment.

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