Last week Joe Mascia shattered the wall of silence that separates this community when it comes to responding to racist and discriminatory actions and speech. The Common Council candidate and BMHA Commissioner was caught, on tape, calling African American political leaders and others the “N” word. Reminiscent of the old adage, “give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile”, he also criticized the Mayor, Council President Darius Pridgen and others charging “Once they’re in power, forget about it, forget it. They want it all.” Widely reported by all the news outlets, the response to Mascia’s vile language and tone has been swift. The aggrieved parties have called for his withdrawal from the Council race and his resignation as a BMHA Commissioner. They’ve been joined by Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner who called Mascia’s behavior, “…despicable. There’s no excuse.” Fillmore Council member David A. Franczyk weighed in on his opponent’s remarks by describing Mascia as “unfit for public office.” Conservative Party Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo stated he was shocked and had “no tolerance for this kind of issue.” FACEBOOK and other social media sites have blown up with comments condemning Mascia. Analyses of his remarks in their historical and contemporary contexts, including mine, are being written on numerous platforms. A few have spoken in support of the embattled candidate yet the overwhelming consensus is that he must go! What does this say about race relations in the third most segregated and poorest city in the country?
Last week Joe Mascia shattered the silence and sparked community outrage over the racist language and behavior of a public official. Or did he? Last week I wrote an article entitled “Breaking the Silence”. I cited the on-going racist talk and behavior of a Buffalo school board member that has been tolerated, by many of the same public officials who were slandered by Mascia’s comments. Other political, business, community, religious and civic leaders have also been stoically closed-mouthed. Why is it that Mascia’s comments were so quickly condemned while comments by this other public official have received scant to no attention by those who spoke out so passionately and with such indignation? I understand that the “N” word is toxic and evokes the legacy of legally sanctioned, unjust and inhumane treatment of Black people. Yet, in this enlightened age when most people realize the power of this one word to convey racist ideology in one fell swoop, “political correctness” generally prevents its utterance. That doesn’t mean that racism, along with sexism and classism has ceased to exist. The solution has been to develop coded language, understood by certain groups, to convey racist messages.
In his book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class”, Ian Haney Lopez describes this coded language, as “dog whistle” messaging. The dog whistle analogy is based on the high pitch of a whistle that only a dog can hear. The use of certain terms, e.g. codes, can convey racist, sexist or classist beliefs understood by its intended audience. Lopez says that the coding is accomplished in a three way process:
Remarks are made that “1) Punch racism into the conversation through references to culture, behavior, and class; 2) parry claims of race-baiting by insisting that absent a direct reference to biology or the use of a racial epithet, there can be no racism; 3) kick up the racial attack by calling any critics the real racists for mentioning race and thereby “playing the race card.”
Lopez says that the “dog whistle: messaging produces phrases that appear to have very little to do with race but under the surface convey racist imagery.
Last week I offered a text book example of how “dog whistle” politics works in the Buffalo School Board. “Paladino claims that he is not a racist. As proof he is making the proverbial counterclaim that it is, in fact, the minority board members who are “playing the race card.” In a July 13th letter to new State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Paladino supports this allegation by also calling the minority members “racists”. “It’s truly a shame that such racist, incompetent and irresponsible people are elected to such critical positions.” Paladino’s back up strategy is to threaten to sue anyone who uses the word racist and Paladino in the same sentence. Thanks to his privilege, money and access to legal representation (he has his own law firm), he ignores the contradiction in calling the minority members racists but will sue them if they exercise their free speech rights.”
I agree with all that has been said regarding Mr. Mascia and his comments. They are intolerable. He should be called out as well as anyone else who uses this type of language. But, the “N” word is not the end-all be-all of racist thought, beliefs and behavior. Should we be any more tolerant of the use of words such as “incompetent”, “unintelligent”, “feeding at the public trough”, “the black sisterhood”, “seeking self-empowerment” “clueless” derisively applied to women of color? While most are careful to control language that is transparently racist, coded language such as that used to convey racist ideology is neither acceptable nor tolerable. It accompanies beliefs that people of color are not as good as; not as human as; not as worthy of respect as; not as deserving of equity as and…….. it goes on and on. To allow this language to go unchecked is to support thought and action that differs little from that used by Mr. Mascia. Funny thing is that Mr. Mascia’s racist language was taped without his knowledge while the Board of Education “dog whistle” language is liberally shared in speeches, media sound bites and written communication. On second thought, it’s no laughing matter.