Dog-Whistling Donald: An Interview With Former NAACP President Cornell Brooks

President Trump’s “shithole” comment may be his most blatant racist remark to date but are his more subtle dog whistles even more dangerous? And why are so many people in this country so uncomfortable with using the word “racist”? I discussed this and more with Cornell Brooks — a lawyer, minister and activist who formerly served as the 18th president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Rebecca Vallas: In recent days — between President Trump’s widely noted “shithole” comment, as well as an exchange he had with the Congressional Black Caucus in which he was told that their constituents would be harmed by his Medicaid work requirements policy, and that not all of their constituents are Black — and he responded, apparently befuddled, “Then what are they?” In the wake of these comments there has been a lot of discussion about how much overt racism is being condoned at the highest levels of this country, and yet we’re also watching tremendous discomfort on the part of many pundits, commentators and even members of Congress with actually calling out racism when it happens. What are your thoughts on this?

Cornell Brooks: One of the things that strikes me is when you have the convergence of intent and ignorance, people are much more likely to call out ignorance. In other words, to the degree that the president says things about African Americans, or any number of races or ethnicities out of ignorance, they’re willing to call that out. But where there is evidence of bad intent, racist intent, bigoted intent, prejudiced intent — there is a reluctance. And so there’s a presumption of goodness that does not exist. So where you have a president who has referred to Mexicans as rapists, who has called into question the judicial suitability and temperament of a federal judge as a consequence of him being Mexican, who has used the word “SOB” as racial code for the “n” word in Alabama in reference to Colin Kaepernick. We’ve seen over and over again — from the birther arguments to the arguments about the Central Park jogger case — a president who has demonstrated not only racial insensitivity, not only ignorance about race, but bad intent, racist intent. And it seems as if people feel that by calling someone a racist, in calling their actions, their deeds and their words racist, that this somehow makes them judgmental. But just because you hold the highest office in the land, in this republic, does not immunize you from being a racist or being called out as a racist.

Is there also a fear among some Democrats that if they use the word racism, that they aren’t going to bring in these white working class voters that so many are focused on?

First of all, the fear is related to a kind of paralysis of politeness — which is to say, we all endeavor to be polite, to be well-mannered, to exercise a certain degree of decorum, particularly with respect to people who occupy positions of authority, so we’re unusually deferential to them. And it causes us to literally paralyze our conscious, our ability to morally critique when we should. There is also this notion that somehow if we’re less critical of the president’s overt racism, this will win us points with the white working class. But what we saw in the last election was the triumph of the politics of authenticity. To the degree that Senator Sanders was perceived as being more authentic, more real, Donald J. Trump as a candidate was also perceived as being more authentic and real — they were understood as candidates who speak transparently. Our critique should be transparent and real and authentic. So when you see people literally engaging in behavior that imperils and endangers other people, you got to call it out.

So, in the name of being polite, here’s what we’re overlooking: This president’s racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic behavior perfectly correlates with hate crime in this country. We have immigrant children who are likely to be beaten up and bullied as a consequence of presidential rhetoric. We have a president who through his racist commentary has both imperiled immigrants at home and American service personnel abroad — to the degree that [when] you use this kind of racist language, we have allies abroad who may be less likely to be protective of American troops, or our enemies more likely to hurt them. That’s what this commander-in-chief has done. And every time [we are] polite, or artificially cordial, we overlook his racism, his xenophobia, his anti-Semitism, his ableism — you pick the prejudice because he has engaged in almost all of it.

Another way racism is not overtly but implicitly playing out is around what Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan often like to call “welfare reform.” There’s been a long quest on the part of Paul Ryan to redefine basically every program and policy that helps struggling families make ends meet as “welfare.” This is a well-known, well-understood dog-whistle that many Americans hear and immediately picture images that they’ve seen in the media over many decades of Black people. And I see many in the media just repeating the frame of welfare and welfare reform with apparently no awareness of the fact that it is not just a Republican talking point but a dog whistle. Your thoughts?

I think part of the problem is due to a lack of historical depth. When we talk about so-called social welfare programs there’s not an appreciation of the degree to which this country going back to President Roosevelt has created all manner of ladders of opportunity for people. So when my father who was a military officer or my brother who was a non-commissioned officer served their country in uniform, they received certain benefits — VA loans, assistance for college — no one considers that welfare. When we provide benefits for corporations with the hope that they will invest in communities, hire people, put money into research and development — we don’t call that welfare. Well how is it when we have working-class people, middle-class people, poor folks in this country who need opportunities and we make critical, thoughtful investments? … As I like to remind people, I’m a graduate of Yale Law School, but I’m also a graduate of Head Start. Head Start is a wise, thoughtful, research-based investment in children that pays off. Smart social investments are in fact investments. Now if you want to make a critical argument based on research, based on evidence, based on outcomes, that’s one thing. But to use this vocabulary of dog-whistle racism, that needs to be called out and that’s exactly what this is about.

I mentioned before Trump’s response when he was confronted with apparently new information that not all of the people who are constituents of members of the Congressional Black Caucus are Black. And he learned that day that not all people who turn to Medicaid for health insurance are Black. In response, many well-meaning people said, “Wait a second, most people who receive public assistance like Medicaid are white,” and the response sort of ended there. I felt incredibly frustrated with how limited the discussion was about Trump’s overt racism — free of the harder work that we need to do as a country as we talk about these policies, these programs, and the people who they help. How can we do a better job and what’s wrong with the “most people who get help from the government are white” response?

Going beyond this binary of are most of the people who receive social benefits or investments, people of color, or white, the question is — irrespective of color or ethnicity, degree of ability or disability — should we be making these investments? Are they good for our citizens and do they move us forward as a society? Those are the questions that we don’t get to and to the degree that we use majority white to legitimize minority Black and Brown, delegitimizes the whole question and proposition morally.

It’s like in gender terms when women are harassed and raped and brutalized and sexually demeaned — if a man says “I object to that because it could be my wife or daughter” — does that legitimize claims made by women based on gender bias, discrimination and demeaning behavior? That’s ridiculous. But this is what we see all the time. And so it’s up to us to be more morally mature to take people’s moral claims at face value so that if the majority of the people receiving some kind of social investment or benefit are any particular group, they’re still Americans, still citizens — and even when they’re not citizens, they are people who aspire to be citizens — we should evaluate the investment based on the investment.

Cornell Brooks, thank you for the conversation.

Thank you, Rebecca.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full interview or read the full transcript, visit the Off-Kilter podcast page on Medium.