When You Hear a Dog Whistle, Pay Attention
OpinionFrom Where I Sit

When You Hear a Dog Whistle, Pay Attention

Language that separates “us” from “them” has become all too common, including in the response to COVID-19.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Dave Schechter
Dave Schechter

Let’s dispense with the COVID-19 myth/slogan: We are all in this together.

We have not been, we are not now, and in recent times there has been ample reason to suggest that any change is unlikely. We are us and them, them and us.

COVID-19 has become yet another issue by which to measure the gulf between segments of society. Consider this quote from a Washington Post article in mid-May about Georgia businesses reopening, from a man enjoying an afternoon at the Avalon mall in Alpharetta: “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics – I’m not worried.”

That was followed by a quote from his friend, who sipped a beer and said, “I know what people are going to say — ‘Those selfish idiots are killing our old people!’”

Starting with the geography, the Georgia Department of Public Health reports that the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the state have come from four metro Atlanta counties: Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb. (Fulton and Cobb rank first and second in the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19.)

A map created by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified the greatest metro area concentrations of cases per 1,000 population as coming from zip codes inside the I-285 perimeter, and from west and southwest of downtown Atlanta.

The Fulton County Board of Health says that Alpharetta has accounted for less than 2.5 percent of its cases. So, “where the cases are coming from” is not in the vicinity of the Avalon mall.

Moving on to the demographics, Georgia is roughly 60 percent white and 32 percent African American. According to the DPH, as of June 4, African Americans made up nearly 32 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases but 48.5 percent of the deaths.

The state classifies close to 28 percent of COVID-19 cases as “unknown” when it comes to racial identification. Using census percentages to redistribute those cases, African Americans clearly are even further over-represented.

Maybe “demographics” means they’re not like us, and if they’re not like us, why worry.

If you say “demographics” to get your meaning across without using another, well, less polite word that’s known as a dog whistle. Maybe that wasn’t what the guy quoted in the Post meant to do, but numerous people who read that comment heard a whistle.

As for “killing our old people,” two-thirds of the COVID-19 related deaths in Georgia have been people age 70 and older. Older people are more likely to have health issues worsened by the coronavirus and are the population of nursing homes and assisted-living residences, where about a half of the state’s COVID-related deaths have been recorded.

The myth that “We’re all in this together” is refuted all the more when you read a Facebook page that advocates opening all Georgia businesses and removing all restrictions – now. There, COVID-19 has been a “HOAX from day 1” and is responsible for “the continuing destruction of our Constitutional rights.” People wearing masks are ridiculed as “sheep” and the medical establishment, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, derided as know-nothings or on the take.

Elsewhere on social media, of course, any number of mask-wearing, social-distancing, guideline-following people contend that those folks are themselves a threat to public health and welfare.

The “us and them” gulf is evident in the response to the aftermath of an African American man under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. This column was in the works before “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” as enumerated in the First Amendment, became enmeshed in a tangle of vandalism and violence, of politics and policing.

It did not take long for posts to appear on that re-open Georgia from COVID-19 page, blaming the violence – “irrefutable evidence” one said, without presenting any – on George Soros, accusing the Holocaust survivor, Hungarian emigre and financier of hiring the people who smashed windows and looted stores. The constant invocation of Soros’ name is a dog whistle, though I have no doubt that the people doing so would deny there being even a hint of anti-Semitism in their suggestion that a wealthy Jewish person is the puppet master behind such activity.

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