One could argue that we are living in the golden age of “dog whistle” racism. By using a dog whistle instead of an overt racist phrase, the speaker can (and in modern times does) claim complete ignorance. (“When I said law and order I meant that my political opponents are pro-chaos.” No US politician has ever been pro-chaos, though at this point I might entertain supporting one.) Pointing out a dog whistle as a dog whistle is a point of education, but it tends to piss off the people blowing all the whistles.
Case in point. The US Army is launching a diversity “conversation” initiative given everything going on in the country. (As an aside the US Army is actually very diverse. In 2016, whites constituted less than half of the women in the US Army, with black women serving in an almost one-to-one ratio with white women. White men formed a more dominant percentage, but still only around 70% of all men in the US Army. These numbers constitute a much higher percentage of minorities in the US Army than in the general population, but that’s a tale for another day.) Normally, this type of initiative is the kind of thing that wouldn’t get a lot of attention if it hadn’t been for an apparent accident. I’ll call it an accident for now, but I’ll pick that thread back up later.
On July 6, an official handout promoting the Army’s “listening tour” under Project Inclusion (everything needs a code name in the Army) was disseminated at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The Army claims that the graphic, which listed forms of white supremacy in a pyramid structure, was pulled from a non-government website. At the top of the pyramid were things like racist jokes, blackface, and lynchings listed as “Overt White Supremacy (Socially Unacceptable).” Lower on the pyramid were other things labeled “Covert White Supremacy (Socially Acceptable).” These were things like “All Lives Matter,” racial profiling, denial of white privilege, and most importantly, “MAGA.” Yup, a US Army handout listed Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” as a covert white supremacy phrase. I’m not going to argue whether it is or not (it is), but rather bring up an interesting point in the response to this “accident.”
Once the inclusion of MAGA was brought to the Army’s attention they did what you would expect, recalling the pamphlets and claiming that those were still under review and they aren’t sure how they got printed and disseminated and they very much didn’t mean to put that in there.
Republican Alabama House Representative Mo Brooks sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army accusing the service of violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids civil servants from making political statements. (Unsurprisingly, sitting congresspeople and the president, who are by definition civilian employees of the government since they receive a salary, are not considered civil servants under the Hatch Act, which probably tells you all you need to know about politicians.) Brooks is pushing for prosecution of any Army employee who was in any way connected with the creation or dissemination of this pamphlet, arguing that claiming MAGA to be white supremacist is a political statement.
Here’s a hypothetical. Let’s say there was a sitting US President who was overtly racist. For the sake of this argument I’m claiming that Trump is not overtly, but covertly, racist. (It’s a stretch, I know, but work with me here.) What I mean is pretend there was a sitting president that stood in front of the media and openly said horrible things about black people. Or even simpler, he said “I don’t like black people. I do not represent them and I don’t want to help them. I don’t think they’re worth my time.” That’s very overt racism. Since the US Army has a lot of black people in its ranks, this would pose a problem for Army leadership. But what could they do? What if this president made campaign hats that said “Black People Are Bad”? Suddenly, saying “Black People Are Not Bad” is a political statement. The Secretary of the Army can’t say that because that’s (apparently) in violation of the Hatch Act. (On the flip side, Vice President Pence won’t utter the sequence of words “black lives matter” because he claims that those words represent a political statement that in some weird and confusing way he doesn’t agree with.)
We live in a world where cell phone videos of people waving Trump campaign signs and wearing MAGA hats shouting “white power” are easy to find. It’s as if dog whistles are too complicated these days. More likely, dog whistles just aren’t needed. When the sitting president retweets a video of a supporter shouting “white power” along with his comment of thanks to the “great people” shown in the video, what would you possibly need a dog whistle for? Of course, all the president’s men claim he didn’t hear the racist shout, which was arguably the point of the whole video. Then why did he share the video? It doesn’t make any sense to share one random video of supporters, especially one that he apparently hadn’t listened to. Of course he listened to the video and of course he heard his supporter say “white power.” He just knows he can get away with claiming he didn’t, because he has before and he did this time. There is no legal precedent for hate speech becoming political speech. If something is political speech then it gets a weird form of protection in civilian life, but a weird exclusion of acceptability for civil servants under the Hatch Act. My favorite line from the Army’s response to the uproar over the pamphlet was to say “The unapproved pages were in no way used as part of the 'Your Voice Matters' listening tour sessions.” The opinion that MAGA is white supremacist is not part of Your Voice. That is too ironic to handle, and that line sums up just how screwed we are.
We have somehow evolved into a political environment where dog whistles aren’t needed. You can shout “white power” in the most overt way then claim “Oops, my bad” and it seems there is nothing to be done. In a way, it’s kind of nice. I can’t see fit to claim any Trump supporter in the second half of 2020 isn’t a racist. If you vote in a democracy for a man who is overtly racist then you are clearly condoning that overt racism. If you condone overt racism how are you not in turn racist? We don’t often get such clear litmus tests that can be used to judge our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. So that’s handy.
Was the Army’s dissemination of the pamphlet an accident? In my opinion, yes and no. I worked as an Army civil servant for eight years at the US Army Research Laboratory. Though I was a civilian, ARL is incorporated as an Army unit. Among other things that means I had to take lots of training geared towards enlisted personnel as a work requirement. (Don’t get me started on Constitution Day training.) I sat through a lot of tone deaf training during those years. The bumbling nature of some of the training videos, and the haphazard way they were slapped together still boggles my mind. When accusations of rape in the military were on the rise, the Army decided that a suitable form of training was to make us watch a documentary featuring first person testimonials from raped service men and women. I had nightmares for a week. What sort of vetting process did that decision go through? I couldn’t have been a very rigorous one. So was the pamphlet an accident? I’m fairly certain nobody read it carefully. Most likely the people that made it didn’t even read it. I’m sure somebody gave it a quick look and approved the printing and dissemination. I was never a soldier but I did spend nearly a decade embedded in Army bureaucracy, and haphazard is how the Army does things. One thing the Army is good at is covering up its mistakes.
You can expect this one to be covered up as efficiently as a dog buries its own shit.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.