The Dog Whistle Has Sounded: How the Right Talks About 'Thugs' Like Trayvon MartinS

On Sunday, Bill Kristol, chronically incorrect steward of his daddy's magazine movement, dismissed liberals' and black activists' outraged response to the Trayvon Martin killing as "just demagoguery... mostly on the side of those who want to indict the whole society for this death." The following day, Rush Limbaugh said the response was "doing more harm to the black community than anything else." How blessed the black community must feel to have their best interests overseen by the living embodiment of everything wrong with white people.

Thus we've reached the inevitable conservative endpoint of any race conversation in the United States. Racism, violence, the horror of an entire community—these are mere emotional reactions cynically drummed up by "race hustlers," marshaled against a demonized white society. If black people are upset about black people getting shot, they have only themselves to blame for their unwillingness to forget about it. And if they're still so upset after so much time, they must have an agenda. After all, the victim was only a black boy.

Our own Max Read posted a detailed breakdown of the white, conservative backlash against the Trayvon Martin coverage (and both Mediaite and Alex Pareene have added yet more). But what's interesting about the unfolding conservative commentary is that Trayvon's irrevocable silence re-defines ghoulish conservative blame-shifting. Trayvon is dead, and he can't speak or act to drive the news cycle. The right must walk its disingenuous path alone—spurred on by habitual loathing that any black man, even a dead one, might cast light on their boundless twilight ethnocalypse.

Conservative race-baiters set their clocks by the dog-whistle. They can't dismiss Trayvon outright: blaming him explicitly because he is black goes nowhere. That would just shift the conversation onto the accuser. Nobody illustrated this principle better than former Reagan and Bush I strategist and Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, in a kind of "Come to Jesus" moment shortly before his death (emphases mine):

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Atwater addresses national policy, particularly the linguistic erosions that allow us to arrive at "entitlements" as code words for "welfare queens cashing lavish checks while rutting like animals on the whites' dime." But this is just the Trayvon treatment writ large, on a national scale: the same linguistic counterrevolution has been imposed on blacks on the personal level as well. Look to the frequent application of "street thug" to Obama, invoking images of saggy-pants gangbangers, chugging 40s. Look to Newt Gingrich calling him "the food stamp president," hammering that point home in the South Carolina and Florida debates. There's no value for Gingrich in citing food stamps as a program: the plurality of Americans on assistance are white, not black. But to an audience reared on the Southern Strategy since 1968, calling Obama the president of food stamps sends a familiar mute signal to those meant to hear it: the danger isn't that the president is black—which we know—but rather that his economics will complete the ghettoization of America. Why, if you had to go on food stamps, you'd be just as shameful as him—as them.

The dog-whistling tweets and rants against Trayvon were inevitable. As Read pointed out, the right lustily impugned his character for his having a screwdriver, an impulse of vandalism and some loose (though not dispositive) association with someone who had possessed marijuana—all of which qualified him for nothing more than being an American boy. Right-wing blogs ran pictures of him flipping the bird, which also qualified him for being an American boy. Most damning of all, there were pictures of him wearing fake gold in his grill—a gangster signifier shared by me at a party once and probably 10% of all white kids at American colleges goofing around with a roll of Reynold's Wrap. Trayvon Martin is a boy in the worst possible way.

This thin characterization is all they need. The right-wing audience only needs a few traits from the bad novelist's toolbox. Like the big-titted blonde used and murdered by a Japanese man in Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor, whose sacred American vagina serves as both metaphor and explanation for that tiny, vengeful people's plunder of America, all you need are one or two red flags. They first say that Trayvon was black, and then they reference vandalism and "marijuana residue." A fake grill, tattoos and the word "thug" do the rest of the heavy social code-wording. By the end of that four-phrase personal inventory, anyone predisposed against blacks wants to know if the coroner shaved Trayvon's eyebrows to reveal hidden left-to-right "FUCK" and "WHITEY" tats. These people are already on board. You just have to punch their ticket.

The most important effect of race-baiting through the dog whistle, however, is that it really does function as bait. When you conspicuously label black kids as "thugs" and white kids as "unruly teens," you bait someone else into noticing it and responding. In this respect, conservative commentators for the last 20 years have been nothing short of masterful. They've turned unregenerate racism into a thought exercise you might as well call "Schrödinger's Black."

A classic (oversimplified) version of the Schrodinger's Cat thought-experiment describes how a cat in a box, with a given atomic particle, can be alive or dead up until the moment you open the box and check on the cat. The act of observation ineluctably helps determine the outcome. Until you looked at it, everything was up in the air. You, the observer, are at fault for the result.

Placing the burden of racism on its observer is the natural, cynical result of decades of conservative dog-whistle racism. Commentators throw out deliberately "ambiguous" statements intended to motivate racists willing to read into them what they want to hear. They make repeated references to Obama and watermelons. They talk about "strapping young bucks" with t-bone steaks. Then, when black or liberal commentators denounce those statements, conservative pundits label them as the racists. After all, you'd have to be a racist to think there was racist commentary there; the only people who think about racism are racists. You have to be importing your own racial hangups to the exchange: you altered the outcome of the reaction when your gaze introduced a racial force to the social reaction.

This is largely how the American right wing created "reverse racism."

In the realm of Limbaughean physics, racism is something generated by race hustlers. These rabble rousers alter the dynamic of natural social interactions by injecting wacky racism particles into a totally innocuous discussion about the natural laziness of young black people who just want to own guns and steal buckets of Popeye's fried chicken. A noble white truth teller merely means to pull back the curtain on the inequities demanded by an indolent black class, and when he's called racist, it's someone else's fault for noticing it. People then victimize that noble soul for telling a hard truth, like Jesus.

In any physical exchange, this reversal of causation or responsibility would inspire laughter and contempt. If, to take a random example, some radio-show-hosting triple-chinned drug-addicted serial-divorcé and bloviator stabbed you repeatedly in the stomach, and you complained that you had "lots of knife-holes" in you, nobody could reasonably claim that you were a "stabbing hustler" who was "condemning mere knife enthusiasts" in a cynical ploy to" gain sympathy via stabbism." But this is the state of right-wing racism in America: it exists only on its moment of detection. Until then, it's merely an amorphous cloud of words. The people who are targeted by it are the real racists, because they have the insufferable gall to notice it and then divisively, unrepentantly point it out. They are malcontents operating without the privilege to speak freely.

This is how you get people like Bill Kristol accusing you of "demagoguery" and trying to "indict the whole society," which is not only paternalistically dismissive but shows their powerful white privilege in being able to decide what is our whole society. The act of creating it allows them to define its terms, drawing the line between a reasonable thought and a paranoid hippie/activist fantasy. Thus advocating mandatory sentencing laws for drug possession busts that disproportionately affect black youths is just smart business and safe policy. (Never mind if the advocate is invested in a privatized prison system whose profits are bolstered by a continual flow of inmates. Sure, he's breaking the whole society, but, hey—investors!—free enterprise!) Meanwhile, saying that the criminal-justice system and the industrial-prison complex disproportionately incarcerates and profits off targeting young blacks makes you a demagogue and a rabble-rouser.

When you cite The Bell Curve after a black youth shoots a suburban homeowner, you are a sober, reasoned sage. When you cite centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow, decades of exclusionary lending, predatory lending, white flight, inequitable distribution of tax monies, voter suppression, regressive voter-registration laws, regressive taxation, dog-whistle racism, spooky attack ads featuring menacing black figures and NRA-sponsored legislation that all but screams "a big negro might break into your daughter's hymen"—well, then you're just some kinda whackjob race-obsessive. Works like The Bell Curve merely update the Jim Crow quackery of phrenology and the simian negroid skull with the soft bigotry of inconclusive or incomplete statistical data interpreted in bad faith. They feed a pundit circus and a criminal justice system that reduces a race of people to a collection of ungovernable animal impulses. They lend a patina of rationality to the automatic presumption that Trayvon Martin was a rebellious addict who attacked a stand-up citizen.

This is what Limbaugh meant when he said that the Trayvon Martin murder was "doing more harm to the black community than anything else." It's counterproductive to get these sorts of people angry, because their emotionalism has already retarded their development. It's the same reversal of responsibility employed by anti-abolitionists, anti-unionists, anti-suffragettes and anti-civil-rights types: "Irrationally ranting and raving distracts you people from your own advancement, and your clamoring about the normative, accepted levels of social hate are rending the fabric of our society. It's all on you." You victimize me by complaining about my actions; your truth is less valuable than, and antagonistic to, my peace of mind.

The act of describing fundamental fractures in our society only exacerbates them. Sure, even in 1787, there were those opposed to slavery, but nearly 80 years later, we eradicated it. And only 100 years later, we gave blacks a full franchise. Any day now, woman will be equal, too, and we'll get around to finalizing that whole black thing. But dislocation is your responsibility when you demand that ice be cracked instead of rolled back glacially. You dishonor Trayvon Martin when you make him a "black victim" and not part of the process, where we all grow, like a nation of stalagmites.

The real racists, the real life-hating agitators, are those who reject the tranquilizing powers of gradualism, who rock the boat. Because the rising tide will lift all those boats. Now shut the fuck up about income inequality.

Image by Jim Cooke.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?