I am a son of the South. I was raised Republican, to be a God-fearing Christian and taught from a very early age that black Americans were lesser than me, beneath me as a white man. My southern, patrician daddy taught me a public lingo to help me walk through my early years, a few choice words to be used in public like “boy” and “welfare queen” when referring to blacks. Behind closed doors and in private was a different matter. I had a smaller dictionary: “ni**er” and “darky” sufficed. And while I shudder today at the thought of saying those words, owning my past is part of my present penance and very much the key to my future.
I waltzed into my teenage years and figured out two things very quickly: that the woman who was raising me to be a gentleman with a firm moral code was, in fact, a black woman named Bertha. I also figured out that I was very different from most of my white male friends, that I was a young gay man growing up in that conservative South. And I hid it from the people that mattered most to me. I “butched it up,” so to speak, so no one would know who I really was. There were code words for me: “sissy,” “queer,” “f*g,” “gay” to name a few. I’d hear things like “he’s a little light in his loafers” or “I know which side his bread is buttered on.” It felt terrible to hear them and to cope, I transferred my hurt towards the only group of people I could find more vulnerable than me: southern blacks.
This time frame was the late 1970s and early 1980s and while much of the nation was edging towards to the late 20th Century, the South was still stuck in the 1960s. So here I was, a little “sissy” coming to terms with who I was and a little bigot coming to terms with my own racism towards the people around me. Looking back, this was the loneliest period of my life where everyone around me was different: my skin color was different from that of my nanny, my sexuality was different from all the other boys in my neighborhood, and I couldn’t tell a soul. I mastered the delicate art of living in both worlds, black and white, gay and straight. And I mastered the art of hearing and speaking the dog whistle.
After college I moved to Washington, DC and went straight into a career of politics. It was a natural fit, I soon learned, because the art of politics is the ability to stay afloat, to walk that fine line between two worlds: what the public thinks and reality. The art of the dog whistle came into prominence with the advent of the Southern Strategy and was distilled into today’s modern political playbook by a fellow South Carolinian, the late Lee Atwater.
Atwater’s specific views on racial code words were crystallized in an interview he gave back in 1981 to the late Alexander Lamis, a Political Science Professor at Case Western Reserve University (and fellow South Carolinian):
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘ni**er’–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 white. 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 ‘Ni**er, ni**er.’ “
Yeah, there it is, in your face. All of its ugliness and the grotesqueness of it all is laid bare, exposed. I suppose at the very least Atwater was being honest.
So you can see how my upbringing and the art of politics are an oddly natural fit for me. What raises my eyebrows is that this same dog whistling is occurring in 2012.
Back in January, when the GOP glitterati was traipsing through my home state of South Carolina, many of the candidates felt compelled to engage in the Atwater school of public policy. Something that went virtually unnoticed during the SC primary was a comment former Senator Rick Santorum made on the stump: “We need contrasts not just a paler shade of what we have.” Let’s be clear: What Santorum was saying that his primary opponent, Governor Romney, was simply a lighter-skinned version of the current White House occupant: President Barack Obama.