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Disingenuous Racism Should Fool No One

Posted in Editorials on December 23rd, 2013

As noted by Amanda Marcotte, Dan Savage, and others, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson not only made homophobic comments that lead to his suspension from A&E, he also made racist remarks.

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Some have speculated that perhaps the reason that the anti-gay comments got more attention in the press is that they were more blatant and more easily quotable. And by quotable, I think it means some people will no doubt be titillated or exaggeratedly scandalized by Robertson’s inane remarks about bodily orifices.

But another reason why the anti-gay remarks have gotten more attention than the anti-black ones is that conservatives in America have a history and a tradition of using “dog whistles” or coded language to express racist sentiment. I have no doubt that there are or will be ways to convey homophobic messages but we have not yet reached a point where when a Republican talks about “traditional marriage” we pretend he’s talking about the bride wearing white rather than opposing same sex marriage. But for some reason the press plays along with racists when they are even slightly ambiguous about their obvious meaning.

Steven Pinker’s explanation as to why people use euphemism and innuendo is that language both conveys meaning and negotiates relationships. He explains the concept of mutual knowledge – you and another might know a fact but you don’t know if the other person is aware of it.

But I think that dog whistle racism is not like asking someone if they want to come up for coffee and to listen to a new album you just got after a date. In a dating relationship people are trying to make a good impression on each other and being too forward might end things prematurely.

Who are the racists trying to impress? Other racists? People of color? White people who are anti-racist?

It doesn’t quite make sense to me. Everyone knows what Phil Robertson was getting at. No one can pretend otherwise without sounding foolish. Did anyone really think that Rick Santorum regularly used the expression “blah people?” If anything it’s an outright display of contempt. Dog whistles and euphemistically racist remarks aren’t about trying to be polite, they are an outright show of hostility toward both their intended targets and anyone who would disagree.

An experience many people who are oppressed in some way have in common is being on the receiving end of a rude comment or behavior and not knowing if that person directed their behavior at you because of their identity or for some other reason. Although I pass for white I do have a common Latin@ last name. One day at my job I received an email correspondence from someone I had not met complaining about a bit of bureaucratic wording and exclaiming that “Your organization needs to hire someone who speaks English as their first language!” I had no idea if this person was raging against the jungle of acronyms and jargon that are present in my industry or if they had a complaint about my work and were attributing my deficiencies to my ethnicity. In this way, euphemistic language is a one-two punch for racists. First, degrade your target. Then gaslight them and claim your “plausible deniability.”

But most of the time, there is no explanation that is remotely plausible. Everyone knew what Trent Lott meant when he said that if Strom Thurmond would have been elected president, we “wouldn’t have had all of these problems.” Similarly, we know exactly what Robertson means. He is explicitly praising the way he thinks black people thought and acted before they had even their rights enshrined into the law. We are meant to infer that he disapproves of black people today and that he blames the social safety net and perhaps the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act for the fact that they are more active in voicing their concerns and participating in society. There is no other way to interpret his remarks. Anyone who says differently holds you in contempt and is insulting your intelligence.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the rhetorical tactic of forcing someone to defend their own indefensible position. If you have a question you think the other side can’t answer, ask it anyway. This is pretty much what A&E did here. Their suspension forced not just Robertson, but many on the right to defend his remarks, and they are failing spectacularly. The best the can come up with is that Robertson has the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. But no one is arguing that he does not. No one can defend the content of what he said, so they are changing the topic. In a round of debate, this is known as dropping the argument. And it means that you have lost.

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