In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in order to harass the people he had identified as enemies. This is how his domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, described the strategy.
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan adopted a different dog whistle.
At a campaign rally in 1976, Ronald Reagan introduced the welfare queen into the public conversation about poverty. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
Who the beneficiary of policy is perceived to be is of material consequence to how it is designed. For the past forty years, U.S. welfare policy has been designed around Reagan’s mythical welfare queen—with very real consequences for the actual families urgently needing support.
All of those arguments are still with us. For example, in 1992, George H.W. Bush attempted to scare white Americans into believing that if we elected Dukakis, there would be black rapists running amok in the country. Mitt Romney reprised Reagan’s argument in the 2012 election by talking about all of “those people” who wanted “free stuff.” Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by talking about Mexican criminals and rapists.
But with the election of this country’s first African-American president, Republicans needed a new dog whistle. We saw that emerge when Rudy Giuliani first questioned President Obama’s patriotism and claimed that he didn’t love America.
“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
That one caught on like wildfire, leading Obama to give the most important speech of his presidency.
I recount that history because, with Trump’s latest attack on the Squad, the focus has mostly been on his statements that they should “go back” to their own countries. But preceding that suggestion is always a claim that they “hate America.” Here is the president at the rally in North Carolina that spawned the “send her back” chants.
I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down — they never have anything good to say — that’s why I say, “Hey, if they don’t like it, they can leave.” Let them leave. Let them leave! They’re always telling us how to run it, how to do this — you know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it. I don’t know. And now watch, I’ll go back tonight — “Oh, sir, that was so controversial. Sir.” No, I’m just saying it’s their choice. They can come back when they want. But you know, they don’t love our country. I think in some cases they hate our country. And they’re so angry.
While counseling the president to “knock it down a notch,” Senator Lindsey Graham said that the four congresswomen of color are “a bunch of communists” who “hate our country.” Andrew McCarthy writes that if “go back” to your own country was based solely on ethnic roots, it would be racist. But, he asks, “Is it ‘racist’ to tell people who have contempt for the country—who abhor the common culture that makes us American—that they ought to go back to where they came from?” The correct response is “yes,” because it is also racist to assume that when people of color challenge this country to live up to our ideals, they are showing contempt for the country and our common culture.
We saw something similar when black athletes took a knee to protest police brutality. Rather than focus on the issue they were attempting to highlight, Trump and his enablers accused them of being unpatriotic, which turned into accusations that, as millionaires, they weren’t appreciative enough of what this country has done for them.
Of course, none of that recognizes that the president himself has called this country “stupid,” “weak,” and “pathetic.” But then, in the world of Donald Trump and his enablers, white men get to make the rules and the rest of us are required to submit and be grateful.
That is the racist underbelly of the equally racist “go back to where you came from” narrative that is all the rage on the right these days. It has taken hold because people of color are gaining positions of power and prestige that other forms of racism were meant to deny. Whenever black people rise to the top of their fields in politics, business, or sports and fight for those who would come behind them, they are be told that they “hate America.”
Leanard Pitts has a response to that charge.
You, like them, take for granted that America is your house, a white house where you make the rules, you set the standards and the rest of us live only by your sufferance…
But this has never been just your house, Donald, grandson of a German immigrant. It belongs to all of us, to every Yup’ik in Kwethluk, every Cuban in Miami, every black boy in Compton, every Muslim in Dearborn. We get to criticize it, we get to love it, we get to fight with it, we get to fight for it, because we built it. And we do not need your permission…
But for all their cowardice, for all your cynicism, for all the fear some white people hold, you can count on the fact that the rest of us will not be denied, deterred or defeated. You are nothing we have not seen before. And still we rise.
In the truest sense of patriotism, that is exactly how Representative Ilhan Omar responded to the “send her back” chants in North Carolina last week.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
-Maya Angelou https://t.co/46jcXSXF0B
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019