The COVID-19 Response Is Fueled by Racial Hostility (OPINION)

May 4, 2020
3:41 PM

Protesters during an April 2020 demonstration in Columbus, Ohio (Photo by Paul Becker/CREDIT)

From excluding migrant workers and those married to immigrants from access to economic stimulus benefits to the exclusion of DACA recipients from receiving grants, the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak appears to be fueled by extreme prejudice.

When Donald Trump signed his immigration order “temporarily suspending immigration into the United States,” experts immediately pointed out that his executive order will only delay the issuance of green cards for a minority of applicants who have waited years to receive that which they worked so hard for. No citizenship means no coronavirus stimulus benefits.

Explicit attacks on immigrants of color satisfying his blood-thirsty base in an election year are predictable. As long as his language portrays meanness towards immigrants and minorities, his supporters become more fired-up. It’s a dog-whistle that brings the worst of the worst out into the open. Trump, however, didn’t prevent the issuance of temporary visas – the largest source of immigration into the U.S.—because Americans need migrants to continue harvesting their food.

As we watch the co-mingling of various hate groups at statehouses all over the country and as Trump sings their praises, those impacted the worst by coronavirus should be taking notice of what is beginning to feel a little more sinister. It appears that the vocal minority doesn’t mind causing as much pain as possible for communities of color under the guise of reopening the economy. I discussed this in a recent piece I wrote about the many organizers of these so-called protests.

White dudes standing on the steps of government buildings with weapons of war showed great privilege not afforded to people of color. Coming to the realization that these events started popping up just after news broke of minorities being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 wasn’t surprising. Neither was looking into the organizers behind these so-called protests. In fact, most are organized by hate groups with a plethora of financial support who regularly join forces as they did for Lobby Day in Virginia earlier this year.

Then it hit me. When they say, “let the weak die to save the economy,” they’re talking about Latinos, Black folks, and Indigenous people. It’s clear that we are “the weak” in this dog-whistle.

Coded Language

Since I went into greater detail about why we should be cautious about the rhetoric and coded language surrounding these rallies in a previous piece, I will forego going into that caution any deeper here. But, we can’t overlook the fact the federal government is operating with a level of bigotry not seen in decades. If what Trump is doing —in concert with armed goons in the streets all over the country— feels like he’s targeting minorities, that’s because he is.

I’ve studied hateful rhetoric most of my life. For those who grew up and live in communities of color. we are students of coded-language (dog-whistles) by default. We know when people use suggestive language that plays on racial and cultural stereotypes. As I got older, I learned about the art of rhetoric, how politicians use it, and how hate groups use it—under the mentorship of prominent scholars of rhetoric. One thing I’ve learned is right-wing politicians and far-right groups use of rhetoric are not that dissimilar.

To be clear, dog-whistle politics is the use of messaging that plays on implicit biases and submerged racial anxieties often mixed with unacknowledged voter sentiments. Merriam-Webster’s defines a political dog-whistle as “a coded message communicated through words or phrases commonly understood by a particular group of people, but not by others.”

The key to making it all work is deniability. The idea is for the person using coded-language to portray innocence should their supporters act on their words. There is no better example of the use of modern-day dog-whistles than Donald Trump. For example, Latinos have been publicly harassed and attacked daily since Trump started talking trash about Mexicans in 2016. More recently is his anti-Chinese speech which has led to attacks on Asian Americans.

Again, he and his supporters will deny the connection between his coded-language and the acts of those who worship him. Despite him knowing how his cultish followers act upon his words, they argue that he isn’t openly directing anyone to attack others (deniability). While his most rabid supporters continue to prove that they are driven by his language, they distance themselves just enough to be regarded as lone-wolves after committing acts of terror.

For centuries, dog-whistle politics has driven fears of the other in America by using straw-man arguments that paint immigrants with a broad brush. Benjamin Franklin used it against German migrants, the Klan used it in the early 20th Century against Latino migrants, and America has used it to demonize Black folks for centuries. While none of this is new, enough people don’t seem to understand it or recognize it.

One of the best explanations you will find about modern-day dog-whistles comes from its architect, Lee Atwater. Atwater was a very influential political operative who worked with many political and presidential campaigns. From segregationist Strom Thurmond to Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Atwater’s explanation of dog-whistle politics in 1981 couldn’t be any clearer.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Ni*ger, ni*ger, ni*ger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘ni*ger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…” Atwater said. “‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Ni*ger, ni*ger.’”

We are now decades, even centuries, into this type of sociopolitical thinking. By being aware of it, we can then address it before it impacts our communities.

Attacking Our Communities

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s efforts were considered evidence of a successful dog-whistle strategy. Nixon ran a series of TV commercials that showed montages of burning buildings —reminiscent of Newark, Detroit, and Watts— as he narrated saying, “I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States,” with a tagline at the end further reinforcing his message: “This time vote like your whole world depended on it: Nixon.” It was a message with an obvious target audience.

Many generations of conservative politicians adopted and expanded the use of dog-whistles moving forward. Ronald Reagan used it to contrast “slum dwellers” and “welfare queens” with his “hardworking” supporters in the Midwest. In the South, he reinforced the Republican’s Southern Strategy appealing to prejudices of many by praising “states’ rights”—a clear reference to segregation.

Bill Clinton, who mastered harnessing the Southern Strategy to address right-wing issues used the same tactic in the 1990s by gloating about being tough on crime, ending the welfare state, and criminalizing immigrants. In order for Clinton to address the straw-man issues that far-right conservatives are traditionally bothered by, he willingly adopted the language of modern-day prejudicial politicians, pundits, and commentators to engage the prejudices of rural voters.

When Barack Obama was elected, we entered a new era of fearlessly publicly declaring racist beliefs. Aside from declaring Obama a secret Muslim, birtherism, and the “he’s not one of us” rhetoric, the use of coded language was largely abandoned in favor of much more blatant, out-in-the-open racism that is still pervasive today. This is what made Donald Trump electable, and his language acceptable.

Once Trump was elected, the general public began to see how the impact of coded-language directly affects communities of color. Latinos began being physically and verbally attacked in public, law enforcement became more hostile towards communities of color, and hate groups began using his rhetoric as signals to take actions against us.

Armed rallies have become more common than ever and hate groups now operate out in the open without fear of repercussions. Police officers now routinely high-five and fist-bump members of hate groups as they protect them from anti-racists who counter-protest their hate-rallies. Not only are conservative politicians out to attack social programs, but they are also willfully employing the use of fear tactics by speaking directly to those who would do us harm.

Historically underserved and underutilized minority communities that have suffered under the oppressive law enforcement regime now have to also contend with the fear of violence in our own communities from outsiders; people willing to travel for hours to slaughter us wholesale because of some conspiracy theories that are backed by Trump’s hateful words.

From Nixon to Trump, every president except Obama has employed the use of dog-whistles to demonize minorities. Obama not using coded-language, however, didn’t stop conservatives from attacking us and our communities; as they always have. In fact, through no fault of his own, Obama’s election increased hateful rhetoric against all of our respective minority communities which resulted in amplifying the continued suffering in our neighborhoods.

It goes without saying that Obama wasn’t exactly a saint. He took a page out of Bill Clinton’s infamous neoliberal playbook to appease far-right conservatives who declared him “weak” on immigration. This was his main motivation behind jailing immigrants in cages thus ensuring his bipartisanship in the annals of history.

Community Impact

As mentioned previously, the impacts of dog-whistle politics on our communities are vast. From policy decisions that adversely impact us to public personal attacks, the language used by those elected to public office have negatively affected us for far too long. The election of Obama opened the door for far-right language that dominates the conversation. Leaving civil society addressing bigotry while the general public ignores policies that hurt minority communities.

Indigenous people are also under threat all over the world due in large part to the racial animus that drives the response to the coronavirus. In the United States, it’s not much different. Recently, in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities Act (CARES), the Trump administration tried to reallocate money set aside for Indigenous Americans to the Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs).

Tribal governments sued the federal government arguing that they needed the money to deliver services to communities hit hard by COVID-19. Including providing health care, obtaining personal protective equipment, and delivering meals to the elderly and children. They asked the court to enter an immediate injunction since the Treasury Department was set to begin sending the money as early as April 28.

US District Judge Amit Mehta agreed with tribal governments that ANCs didn’t qualify as the type of “tribal government” that Congress referenced in approving the relief money.

When Lee Atwater said, “we want to cut this” is much more abstract than using racist language because cutting programs are “totally economic things” and the byproduct of them is, “blacks get hurt worse than whites,” he meant exactly that. Using economics as a tool of oppression against communities of color has been happening for decades.

What you’re witnessing is the culmination and advancement of a far-right policy agenda.

In America, when we talk about systemic racism, this is where it all happens. It begins with dog-whistles that drive racial hostilities. That language is then used to justify the policy decisions that disproportionately impact minority communities. It also impacts how individuals treat us in public spaces. From police using their implicit biases in policing to the lack of access to quality healthcare, all of it is driven by hostility toward minorities culminating from hateful rhetoric.

As the coronavirus ravages minority communities and politicians begin opening states back up, remember, they are fully aware of the impacts of COVID-19 and who it’s hurting the most. The reason they don’t fear the virus is because they are willing to sacrifice us. Their thinking also excludes the fact that science tells us the virus knows no bias. But having statistically better access to healthcare is playing a huge role in the decision-making process.

Don’t get it twisted. They know exactly what they’re doing.


Arturo Tha Cuban is a front-line anti-racism activist, essayist and upcoming author who advocates for equality, justice and accountability. He tweets from @ExtremeArturo.