Time for US to ditch poisonous dog whistle of racism

The dog whistles of racism are everywhere, once you have tuned your ears to hear, and your eyes to see, them.

Greg Cusack

MANY years ago, as a graduate student, I struggled with understanding how the average white person in the pre-civil war South could have been such an ardent supporter of chattel slavery when, after all, only a minority of Southerners ever owned slaves.

As I regard today's American level of inequality, I better understand why: no matter how poor a white person might have been before the Civil War, he or she at least was "above the blacks." This gave them the illusion that they had much more in common with the rich, fellow white slave-owners than with the multitude of whites and blacks who possessed little, an artifice vital to maintaining the class system of the pre-war South.

The truth of this non-economic basis for widespread support for slavery became even clearer after the Civil War and the prohibition of slavery. That the South reacted so quickly and violently in moving to subordinate free black and women through insidious "black codes" is proof that the underlying reason for preserving a system of black repression was social control and not economic benefit.

Intertwined with this system of social control was the ideology that attempted to justify it. As Ibram Kendi has documented in his powerful (and depressing) book, "Stamped from the Beginning," the theological and "scientific" justifications for alleged black peoples' inferiority (and, it should be noted, by extension, all peoples of color) can be traced to at least the 16th century and the earliest years of the black slave trade.

A note here on the nature of slavery before the slave trade of modern times: As many people have noted, often in the past in their defense of the Southern slave system, slaves have been around for apparently almost as long as we have records of _ if you will pardon the term _ "civilization."

Yes, slavery was widespread in the ancient world, but it was a consequence of warfare and conquest and not a condition of one's ethnicity or color of skin. If your tribe fought against the Romans and lost, well, many or most of the survivors would become slaves, some to be worked to death in the mines of Spain (for example), while others might have more benign employment as domestic slaves of a great commander.

It was also common _ in the Greek and Roman world, anyway _ for there to be paths toward manumission, and we know of many individuals in the Roman world who acquired wealth and status after they had achieved their freedom. It was the African slave trade begun in post-Renaissance Western history that began to identify color with slave status.

I find it interesting that this allegedly scientific basis for inequality accelerated after the US abolished slavery. Unfortunately, many of the truly great scientific breakthroughs of the latter 19th century were used (twisted) to justify the supposed ranking of "races," the latter term assuming new importance as the previously understood broad genus of the human race now became subdivided according to the "advanced" ones _ all white, not so coincidentally _ and the less so.

Darwin's discoveries about evolution were found to be particularly useful in arguments that whites had demonstrated their natural superiority in the "competition among races."

It would be a grave mistake to assume that this tripe is but a sad remnant of the past, for it continues to live on, often just beneath the surface of so much of what passes for reasonable commentary today. Just think about some of the arguments that have been advanced of why poverty "among blacks" has proved to be so "enduring," or how the condemnation of "urban violence" (as quite distinct from the less mentioned "rural violence") coincidentally references cities in which black or other populations of color are large?

The dog whistles of racism are everywhere, once you have tuned your ears to hear, and your eyes to see, them.

And, lest we too easily dismiss only the whites of the 19th century as being too damn dumb to understand what was really going on, consider how so many whites of our own day gobble this up as their elected representatives continue to both demean people of color and move to make it even harder for these fellow citizens to exercise their rights as American citizens to vote and otherwise participate fully _ and equally _ in society.

All of these intentional distractions serve the intended purpose of keeping the eyes of many away from the "ball" _ how the wealthy elite are manipulating the rest of us to: a) allow them to continue to rake off everything while, b) we are being asked to support essentials for the rest of us, such as decent health care, unemployment and retirement benefits; c) we blunder about, destroying linkages to regional and international allies even as we irritate friends and potential enemies; and d) beef up our military and nuclear power that makes escalating violence ever more likely.

The author was a member of the Iowa State House of Representatives and also served in the Iowa executive branch. He retired in 2004.Shanghai Daily condensed the article.

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