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Opinion: How white politicians use dog whistles to divide us — and what white folks can do about it 

St. Louis has earned a progressive moniker over time: We have Democratic-majority governing bodies, high-profile progressive leaders, and innovative, progressive initiatives. However, St. Louis has long been — and continues to be — one of the most segregated cities in the country. This deep divide is visible in our neighborhoods, schools, and elections.

Mallory Schwarz

The weekend before the recent St. Louis primary election, I went door-to-door with my team at NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, talking to voters across the city about the upcoming election. During one of my conversations, I asked a middle-aged white woman in South St. Louis if we could count on her support for Tishaura Jones for mayor. She told me that, actually, she liked Treasurer Jones the least of the three candidates. When I asked why Jones was her last choice, she answered: “Because I think she has wild hair, and I don’t like to look at it.”

This comment stunned me, not just because it’s preposterous to choose your mayoral candidate based on their appearance (for years, research has shown women candidates are judged more for their appearance) but because of her comfort in sharing with me, a stranger, a judgment so clearly rooted in racism. There is no question that comments about a Black woman’s hair have nothing to do with her hair.

But this isn’t about one comment. This comment is a manifestation of the racist rhetoric perpetuated throughout the election by white candidates and local media. It’s indicative of what we as white progressives have encouraged and allowed.

The phrase “dog whistle” is shorthand for a message that appears harmless but actually insinuates or reinforces something more insidious to a specific audience. Racial dog whistles are often used by politicians and media to incite racial fears and sow economic resentment between Black people and other people of color and non-rich white people. They tend to be purposefully subtle and thus plausibly deniable. But in the era of “Make America Great Again,” such racist coded messages as “Chicago crime” and “law and order,” were, as one Republican strategist put it in 2015, “not a dog whistle; that’s a dog siren.”

You don’t have to look far to see examples of racist dog-whistling in state and local elections, including the current St. Louis mayoral race. “Tough on crime” language, which is similar to “law and order” whistling, has been a theme of Alderwoman and white mayoral candidate Cara Spencer’s platform. While safety is certainly a priority for voters across the city, Spencer has repeated in mail piece after mail piece her promise to “stop violent crime”’ by “targeting people most at risk of committing violent crimes.” Spencer does not explicitly reference any one racial or ethnic group — and she doesn’t have to. This thinly veiled racism taps into the fears of white voters around violence while quietly reinforcing the racist idea that Black people and other people of color are to blame for violent crime in the city. Put simply: Spencer is capitalizing on the race and class divide — and overt racism — that exists so deeply in St. Louis in an effort to further divide communities of color and white people against each other.

In another textbook example of racist dog-whistling, Spencer released a campaign video featuring darkened images of Black mayoral candidate Lewis Reed — a tactic notably used against Congresswoman Cori Bush during her 2020 campaign. Researchers at New York University compared the results of six studies across media platforms that found negative (and often criminal) connotations associated with darkened images of Black and Brown public figures.

While Spencer denies being associated with it, in March a pro-Spencer push poll was sent to voters — a form of campaigning disguised as research that aims to persuade voters, rather than assess opinions — citing St. Louis City treasurer and Black mayoral candidate Tishaura Jones as “a part of the problem” of crime and economic decline in the city. This has been a theme in Spencer’s campaign which in this week’s live debate claimed the Office of Economic Empowerment, created by Jones in 2016, was to blame for the widening of the racial income gap over the past decade.

And not every take is so subtle or refutable; The St. Louis Post Dispatch, one of the area’s most dominant newspapers, notoriously racist and sexist in its editorial takes, published numerous pieces falsely equating local Black women in leadership to Trumpian tactics — even Trump himself — in the days leading up to their respective elections. This false equivalency between a rampant racist, sexual predator and progressive, sexual assault-surviving Black women (who all went on to win their respective elections) is dangerously abusive and obtuse.

So, what can be done knowing that dog whistles will undoubtedly continue to be used by politicians to divide communities in order to conquer votes for their own political gain?

First and foremost, white people — especially leaders in progressive spaces — must recognize that the onus is on us to call out and reject these divisive attacks. From white politicians trying to pit us against each other, to comments about a Black candidate’s hair, the responsibility is on white people to recognize and challenge the ways racism shows up in our own organizations and lives. This work isn’t easy; it’s often uncomfortable. It takes a lifetime of unlearning and learning. But it’s not enough to mean well if we aren’t ready to do the critical work of first holding each other accountable to the many ways we intentionally and unintentionally harm Black people and people of color.

For St. Louis to work for all of us, we cannot let politicians divide us based on where we come from or what we look like. Because no matter your zip code, the color of your skin, or the money in your bank account, all of us deserve a better future for ourselves and our families. Together, we can build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational movement to tackle the inequality and challenges faced by our communities. But If we want to turn this vision into a reality, then white people have to be willing to do the work.