Dog Whistle Politics

I get stuck. I confess. Whenever racism dominates the news, as it does so frequently, it gets a response from me. I am like a Pavlovian dog, and I know it. The focus on NFL football players “taking a knee” during this last week is the latest example. A significant number of the players are people of color. And whether the players are Black or White, they “take a knee” to protest the police murders of young African American men.

My reaction is solidarity with them…and it is instantaneous. I want to get down on my knee, just as my fist went up in 1968 in solidarity with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the US Olympic Athletes who protested racism in our country from the Gold and Bronze Medal platforms in Mexico City. My response then was automatic just as my response now is automatic.

I believe that those who react to the players on their knees as unpatriotic and disrespectful of anthem and flag, those treasured symbols of American pride, are also responding automatically.

Remember the image of the small “rational” rider atop the huge “emotional” elephant that I’ve used in several sermons. The elephants are in control here. My “rider” eventually inserts itself, and I could review for you the reasons that I believe these protests are both justified and lawful. But I also know that my “rider” is primarily concerned with justifying the direction my elephant is already moving. That pattern of justification is one of the central reasons that “reasonable people” have such a difficult time discussing these “dog whistle” issues.

I am resenting, more and more deeply, being manipulated.

I could not be more convinced that the attack on the NFL players is racist at its core, just as was the “Birther” movement and the “Muslim Ban” and the “Border Wall” and the defense of white racists in Charlottesville. However, I also know the focus on “taking a knee” crowds out attention on health care and the overturn of DACA and the disaster in Puerto Rico. Today we can add a tax cut plan that would accelerate income inequality and benefit the super-rich to that list.

I am resenting being “played.” Perhaps you are, too.

We need to realize that there is a pattern here. Have you noticed that almost every time there is a need to divert attention from a mean-spirited attempt to move our society away from fairness and equity, the dog whistle gets blown? What we need to understand and what I am reminding myself to remember, is that that dog whistle not only energizes the reactionary base, but diverts progressive attention from the attempted structural changes that will be so difficult to correct.

We need to be in this work for the long haul. This week’s dog whistle will be followed by another. Look for more as the tax cut proposal moves forward. Tax cuts are, in many ways, the heart of the reactionary agenda. They will benefit the wealthy and strip government of the ability to promote equity.

Let me be clear. We need to resist the dog whistles. I support the NFL players and I am delighted (if surprised) to see many of the team owners locking arms with them. Defending the right to protest is important, of course.

We need to be on the look out for those across the aisle who are getting tired of being manipulated too. We are not the only people who resent being “played.”

We allow our attention to be diverted from the structural issues at our peril. It is the Beloved Community that is at issue and the shape of the challenges we will face tomorrow will be determined by our persistence in resisting the challenges to justice with which we are confronted today.

There is a statue of the two Olympic athletes who raised their fists in the new Museum of African American History. We have been responding to dog whistles for a long time. What statues will we need to cast 50 years from now? Football players on their knees? Will we still be allowing dog whistle politics to keep the Beloved Community only a distant dream?

Blessings to all of the long haul people with whom I want to be in solidarity.