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The Trayvon Martin case shows US politics is rule by the dog whistle

Barack Obama's delayed response to the Florida shooting.

It took Barack Obama a full 15 days to comment on the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, 17-year-old African-American boy wearing a hoodie who was shot dead by a trigger-happy vigilante in a Florida gated community. The president resisted increasingly loud calls to condemn what appeared to be a plain case of racially motivated murder. Then, when he finally spoke, he made the killing personal, adopting the dead boy as if he were his own with the words, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

Why the hesitation? The answer, of course, is that the US remains cursed by race. Even in a cosmopolitan metropolis such as New York, the claim that America is a racial "melting pot" is wishful thinking, a contrived but powerful myth that belies the cruel reality that 150 years after the civil war and more than 50 years since Lyndon B Johnson's civil rights legislation, Americans remain divided by the colour of their skin.

There are some encouraging signs that the worst days of African Americans being treated as inferior are gone. It is significant, for instance, that the death of Trayvon Martin has become a national tragedy and a source of universal shame. Yet it was still almost two weeks between the day he was killed, 26 February, and the story breaking nationally on 8 March. Then a further fortnight passed before the president decided to speak.


It was hoped that Obama's presidency would prove a milestone on the road to a post-racial US, yet there are clear signs that race continues to poison the political debate, even at the highest levels. Liberals list the "dog-whistle" phrases used by prominent Republicans to encourage their racist supporters. Like all attempts to prove the use of subliminal codes, it would take the genius of Alan Turing to crack the secret cypher for certain.

When Rick Santorum told Southern audiences that "America was great before 1965", was he really signalling to the heirs of the Confederacy that the US was a far better place before the civil rights march that year, led by Martin Luther King, Jr through Selma, Alabama, that ushered in LBJ's Voting Rights Act? When Santorum was caught on camera saying, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money," was he caught being racist? Santorum hastily denied he had said "black people", insisting he'd said "blah people" instead. Blah? Blah-blah-blah.

When Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, was seen testily wagging her finger at Obama before announcing he was "thin-skinned" and that she "felt a little threatened, if you will, in the attitude that he had", was she, too, reinforcing primitive attitudes she dare not openly admit? When members of the birther movement obsess about whether Obama was American-born and hint that he is a closet Muslim, are they motivated by their dislike of the president's mixed race? When Obama called out Newt Gingrich for labelling him "the food stamp president", was Gingrich, as the president suggests, "tapping in to some of our worst instincts"?

Republicans say Democrats accuse them of being racist to shut down debate about issues such as welfare dependency and voter fraud. When Juan Williams, an African-American Fox News commentator, tackled Gingrich at a candidates' debate on whether using language such as "entitlement society", "poor work ethic" and "food stamp president" was an incitement to racism, the Republican crowd roared its disapproval that the question had even been asked.

Lee Atwater, who advised both Reagan and George H W Bush, was in no doubt that racism informs Republican campaigning. "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger'. That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced bussing, states' rights and all that stuff," he confessed.

David Gergen, who advised Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, is also adamant that Republicans use dog-whistle techniques. "There has been a very intentional effort to paint [Obama] as somebody outside the mainstream, 'Other', 'He's not one of us,'" he explained. "There are certain kinds of signals . . . code for, 'He's uppity. He ought to stay in his place.' Everybody gets that who is from a Southern background." And Gergen was describing the tactics of John McCain, who in turn suffered the racist smears of George W Bush surrogates who whispered he had fathered his adopted Bengali daughter out of wedlock.

Little wonder that Obama was slow to express sympathy with Trayvon Martin's parents. When he intervened on behalf of his Harvard pal Henry Louis Gates, the African-American professor arrested for breaking into his own home when he lost his front-door keys, the president accused the police of acting "stupidly" and said that "there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately". Such hasty remarks cost him dearly and he has been wary of taking sides in racial disputes ever since.

Bradley effect

Obama already suffers electorally from being an African American. An AP-Ipsos poll in the 2008 election showed that 6 per cent more Americans would have voted for him had he been white, and that is without taking into account the "Bradley effect", the phenomenon which suggests that, even in anonymous polls, racists are so reluctant to be thought racist that they lie about whether they would back a black candidate.

With the economy still failing fully to ignite, and with his likely opponent, the oddly orange-hued replicant Mitt Romney, prepared to say or do anything to get elected, Obama will need every last vote to win in November. Doing the right thing, as Spike Lee would put it, and letting Americans know he feels Trayvon's parents' pain may not prove to have been the wisest move. Better perhaps to disappoint supporters you know will vote for you come what may than risk being seen to side with one race over another.

Nicholas Wapshott's "Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics" is published by W W Norton (£18.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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