Can you Smell the Smoke?

I recently watched a movie called “Remember the Titans”, for the umpteenth time, about the desegregation of Virginia schools.  In my favorite scene the coach, played by Denzel Washington, took the young football kids (black and white) who refused to play as a team to football camp to try to bring them together.  Needless to say it was a frustrating venture so he finally made them run a great distance to the scene of one of the major Civil War battles.  He ran them until they were too exhausted to do anything but listen…but they still automatically separated into two different groups while running.

Then he started to speak about the death and destruction that happened there, describing the smoke, the smell of blood, young men their age dying of hot lead, fighting brother against brother.  Can you smell the smoke, the smell of death and hot lead?  Can you see the tragedy that occurred all over this nation?  I can.  It’s a beautiful speech about how they had to figure it out or it would destroy them.

I thought about how we all have to figure it out because it’s destroying us as surely as the sun will rise in the morning.  Then we had Rush come out with his “master-slave relationship” comments and my head exploded…so I write.  This isn’t ancient history.  It’s only been approximately seven generations since the Civil War and three since the Civil Rights movement when our heroes were shot down like dogs in the street.  This is current events and we have to understand it so we can deal with it.

While there are some who are still proud of their racism and openly vicious about it most of us like to believe we’re not racist.  However, statistics and studies show that we’re more racist than we know or want to be.  People who use “dog whistle politics” play on that for their own benefit, not ours.

The term “dog whistle politics” refers to the silent dog whistle only the dog can hear meaning the language that calls silently to a specific audience.  In this case we’re referring to the “code” that calls to open racists but also calls to the implicit racism socialized into all of us whether we’re aware of it or not.

It’s human nature for people to feel more comfortable with people they see as like them whether it’s because of religious beliefs, a common hometown or high school, a common profession or any one of a multitude of things that unite us into groups.  So when someone uses “code” to cause us to see someone else as the “other”…somehow innately different from us… it’s a divisive and dangerous form of speech.

We’re all people with hearts, lungs and brains who just want to raise our children and find a small measure of security and happiness in life.  Beyond that we are all Americans and anything that divides us is an evil we can’t afford.

Most of us don’t recognize the “dog whistle” when we hear it but when they say “food stamp president” we automatically conjure a mental image of a crowd of dark people in the welfare office while the fact is many more white people rely on food stamps than black people.  The fact that many of us grew up with segregation means that we were socialized to see people of color as “different” even if we claim to not see them as less.  So it’s imperative to think about this and sort out the “code” they use to divide us because nothing has worked so insidiously to destroy us as racism has, whether it’s open or implicit.

When Rush talks about a “master-slave” relationship between Pres. Obama and Gov. Christie it’s a “dog whistle” to the fear white men have always had of the black man reversing the status quo and getting his foot on his head.  It enflames their fear and hatred for someone they have assigned the “different” status to.

When they start a line of speech as they did with ‘umbrella-gate’ or ‘salute-gate’ it’s about the “code” that promotes racism.  The President was holding a press conference with a foreign dignitary and it was appropriate for a marine to hold an umbrella over his head while he did so.  There are pictures of Sarah Palin exiting a plane with someone holding an umbrella over her head yet she raved like a lunatic over this small gesture of respect shown to our President.  These courtesies have always been shown to our President.  It reflects well upon us at home and around the world so why did it bother her so much?  It bothered her because it’s more of the “dog whistle code” saying this President is black and doesn’t deserve respect…and most certainly shouldn’t have a white man holding his umbrella even if he is the Commander in Chief.

When the insane rhetoric started over him forgetting to salute the marine posted by his helicopter it was the same “code.”  He obviously had other things on his mind…and he’d be an uncaring idiot if he didn’t with the issues the country is facing.  Yet as soon as it occurred to him he got off the plane, shook hands with that marine and showed him he was valued.  From the smile on that marine’s face that obviously meant more to him than a casual salute while walking by yet the rhetoric started.  I’d also like to point out that the military salutes up.  Troops don’t normally salute people of the same rank or lower rank but someone of higher rank.  If that person salutes back it’s a matter of courtesy and as the Commander in Chief our President is required to salute nobody.

When Rush Limbaugh, and others, referred to our President and First Lady as “uppity” that was a ‘dog whistle’ to racists to inflame them.  That is a term that has always been used to designate that a black person has stepped out of their assigned station in life…their “place.”  It assigns a status to them of being less than every other President and First Lady because their skin isn’t white and we need to understand that for what it is.  When they demanded his birth certificate and then his college transcripts that was a dog whistle to round up the racists and call them to arms.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for saying all it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.   If you read his letter from the Birmingham jail you’ll quickly see that the open and rabid racists weren’t as much of a problem to him as the ones who supposedly agreed with him but didn’t recognize their own implicit racism when they told him it was too soon and he was being too insistent on justice.

“Boots Riley on Racism in America”, a YouTube video in the references below, is an interview with Boots Riley, a musician and activist, regarding racism.  Some interesting facts are that while arrest rates for the same crimes are essentially the same for blacks and whites the number of black men in prison was 3,042 per 100,000 verses only 487 for white males.  This indicates African Americans are treated differently by the court system.  He also says he has had four guns held to his head and all that saved him was someone recognizing him.  He doesn’t blame the government but instead the system and the ruling class.  His belief is that change doesn’t come from who is elected but rather activism such as we saw in the 60s and 70s.

That activism wasn’t just black people but also white people who refused to allow implicit racism to rule them.  It’s up to all of us to say no to this and even more important for white people to understand the white privilege they enjoy and refuse to allow it to continue.  However, I do think it matters who we elect when we elect rabid racists who promote it in the public square.

In spite of the fact that the same rates of arrest exist for black and whites across all crime categories we have more black men in prison now than we had in slavery prior to the Civil War.  Many states deny voting rights to anyone with a felony charge, even after they have served their sentence and parole, those men have been permanently disenfranchised as American citizens, quite often for non-violent drug offenses that white men get away with so it’s another way of enslaving them and assigning a lesser status to them permanently.

The video about the racism survey done by the AP in my references shows Racism is ‘on the rise’ in the US.  This video is an interview of James Braxton Peterson by an Australian news source regarding the Associated Press poll showing that racism has actually increased in the United States since President Obama was elected.  I wonder why?  Is it the “code”…the “dog whistle” language we’ve been subjected to in the public square since he was elected?

The interesting facts in the poll are that while open racism increased from 49% to 51% from 2008 to 2012 implicit racism increased by even more from 49% to 56%.  The other fact brought out was that while open racism is 40% more common in Republicans, when polling for implicit racism the gap was nearly closed between Democrats and Republicans.  It makes me wonder if having an African American president has increased the racism or just brought it to the surface in those of us who deny it.

While I knew racism still existed I had mistakenly assumed it to be primarily in the deep South except for pockets of people scattered thinly throughout the country.  I didn’t realize until this President was elected how much of it still exists and how divisive and abusive it is to this day.  I thought we had already said no to it as a nation back in the 1960s and people were moving away from it so some of these statistics surprised me as much as the virulent language toward and about this President does.

Race in America, the Economics Report from the Race in America conference, makes a lot of good points about how the policies of slavery, the Civil War, the reconstruction and the laws the southern states made to try to negate as much freedom as possible for black people even after the Civil War has carried over to keep them in a disproportionate level of poverty.  It’s more than time for this to stop.

I was aware of the Jim Crow laws, since I grew up in a time when people were dying to defeat them, but the “black codes”, the empty “40 acres and a mule” promise and how those things perpetuated prejudice and economic inequality was never clearer to me. (Conley, 2010, Pg. 4)  How the redlining of neighborhoods for the purpose of loans was working to segregate and hold black people in poverty, segregated into “their own neighborhoods” to this day, was also new information and makes me wonder if we’ve ever truly had desegregation.

Change does seem to come slowly but it concerns me that we’re now losing ground on these issues.  My personal belief is that has a lot to do with the “dog whistle” political speech we hear on a daily basis but it’s frustrating and infuriating to me that people are allowing it to change who they are and what they believe.  I personally believe people are especially susceptible to this kind of influence in difficult economic times because they are afraid.  We can’t allow our fear to cause us to devour each other like cannibals.

I’ve said before that the Civil War didn’t address civil rights, just the human rights of not being able to own people, and that we didn’t even begin to address civil rights until the 1960s.  Now it seems Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the others who fought so hard for change might have died in vain and that’s untenable to me.

I was horrified recently when Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court made comments to the effect that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 had outlived its time as if racism no longer existed.  If we can’t count on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land made up of supposedly scholarly, honorable people to understand these issues, how can we ever hope to move forward instead of backward?

I have to wonder how many centuries it will take for us to understand that people are people.  I hope we figure it out soon before the division destroys us.  We can’t form that “more perfect union” until we include everyone in that union with equal status as Americans…and we obviously have a long way to go.


“Boots Riley on racism in America – YouTube.” YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

Michelle Alexander: More Black Men Are In Prison Today Than Were Enslaved In 1850. (n.d.). Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 31, 2013, from

Race in America: Restructuring Inequality. (2010, June 3). Mid-American Christian University. Retrieved May 1, 2013, from

Racism survey shows Racism ‘on the rise’ in the US – YouTube. (n.d.). YouTube. Retrieved May 2, 2013, from

Schaeffer, R. (2011). Chapter 10 Racial and Ethnic Inequality. Sociology A Brief Introduction (9


Author: Cheryl Creech

What say you, the people?