The “Strategic Racism” of Charlie Sykes
By Ted Kraig, Steering Committee Chair, Citizen Action Milwaukee Organizing Co-op
Editor’s note: this blog is a follow up to our recent blogs Suddenly the Smoke Clears Around Charlie Sykes and Why is Charlie Sykes so Mad at Us?, which have sparked a great deal of interest. It is longer than our usual blogs in order to provide a more in-depth analysis of the on-going strategic racism of Wisconsin’s top right-wing radio host.
Conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, is getting a lot of credit these days. He’s been garnering significant news coverage and regular appearances on MSNBC for what is portrayed as a principled stand against the racism, religious bigotry and xenophobia of Donald Trump. In Sykes’ new persona, he is opposing the rise of Trumpism, which he portrays as a dark new force within the Republican Party, destined to destroy it, and completely out of sync with his own lofty color blind conservatism. In turn, he claims to be paying a price for his high principles by inciting the antipathy of Trump’s unreasoning supporters.
However, an examination of Charlie Sykes’ broadcasts on the recent unrest in Sherman Park makes it very plain that Sykes was, and still is, a cunning and purposeful practitioner of strategic racism, working long and hard to exploit racial prejudices to advance a conservative political agenda.
Significantly, Sykes’ new narrative includes a kind of mea culpa in which Charlie-the-innocent acknowledges that perhaps he and his fellow conservative radio talkers have inadvertently awakened a dangerous tendency in the Republican base.
As Sykes put it in an interview with Politico:
“When I would deny that there was a significant racist component in some of the politics on our side, it was because the people I hung out with were certainly not…When suddenly, this rock is turned over, there is this—‘Oh shit, did I not see that?’”
Recently in an interview with Vox quoted by Steven Elbow of the Capital Times, Sykes said:
“I’m different than Rush Limbaugh, but there’s no question that we got caught up in certain word salad, certain narratives that perhaps we did not fully understand how they were playing among our base.”
Of course to those of us who have paid real attention over the years, Sykes’ claim of innocence rings hollow. We’ve seen Sykes’ prominent role in creating the highly racialized politics that we have in Wisconsin and his claim of innocence is on par with the great line from Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!” (The croupier hands him his money.) “…Your winnings, sir.” “Oh, thank you very much!”
But even media sources that are not gullible enough to believe the message that Sykes has been some kind of naïve yet principled conservative who inadvertently egged on racist, xenophobic elements in our society, seem to buy the notion that he has learned his lesson and is honestly and openly reflecting on past mistakes. As an editorial in the Shepherd Express put it:
“Charlie, we’re glad that you’re doing a little soul searching and we certainly don’t condone the hateful attacks you receive from Trump supporters. But in the future we hope that you think about the impact of your words on impressionable listeners and the cowardly Republican politicians who stoke anger and divisiveness to fuel their personal and political agendas…we hope that this current soul searching you seem to be doing will bring you back toward the political center.”
But is Sykes really engaged in a very public soul searching, giving up past tendencies to stoke racial resentments? Has Sykes turned over a new leaf and decided to become a positive force for reason and tolerance? Or is Sykes “having his cake and eating it too” by convincing many that he is now on a moral high ground on questions of race while he actually continues to stir the pot of racial resentments?
If you’re open to the possibility of the new Charlie Sykes, this statement from a Sykes broadcast in the immediate aftermath of the recent unrest in Sherman Park (well after Sykes allegedly began turning over a new leaf) might make you reconsider:
How do you unravel 20, 30, 40, 50 years of the dismantling of intact families? How do you unwind a half a century of cycles of dependency, how do you unwind a criminal justice system that has convinced an entire generation or more of the criminal element that there are no consequences to their behavior? How do you unwind a political climate that has a target on the back of cops basically saying ‘you know what, we can have a tremendous spike in the murder rate, but the only thing we’re going to get upset about is you men in blue if you defend yourselves. We can tolerate, we can ignore educational failures, ignore economic failures, we can ignore the body count in this community, but the one thing that will get us looting and burning will be if you cops defend yourself.’ How do you unwind that?” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
Most of us reading this rather typical statement from Sykes will either consciously or unconsciously recognize its racial characteristics (we all know who “the criminal element” is). But articulating how and why this is an appeal designed to stoke racial antagonism and advance a conservative corporate political agenda, is actually very tricky business. To understand why, it’s helpful to get some background on how communication like this came about and how it works.
In his brilliant book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney Lopez details the origins and history of what he calls “strategic racism,” the calculating, cynical manipulation of racial prejudices to advance a conservative political agenda. Here’s how it works:
“Those blowing a racial dog whistle know full well that they would be broadly condemned If understood as appealing for racial solidarity among whites…(The strategy) involves three basic moves: a punch that jabs race into the conversation through thinly veiled references to threatening non-whites, for instance to welfare cheats or illegal aliens; a parry that slaps away charges of racial pandering, often by emphasizing the lack of any direct reference to a racial group or any use of an epithet; and finally a kick that savages the critic for opportunistically alleging racial victimization. The complex jujitsu of racial dog whistling lies at the center of the new way of talking about race that constantly emphasizes racial divisions, heatedly denies that it does any such thing, and then presents itself as a target of self-serving charges of racism.”
Lopez documents how the “complex jujitsu” of race baiting politics was pioneered by George Wallace in the 1960s and then perfected by Richard Nixon in what is now often called the “southern strategy.” The strategy successfully converted the Republican Party into an almost exclusively white party which now garners the vast majority of white votes in America. At that time the math worked out well. As a 1968 Republican Party Convention delegate was reported to have said “Remember, this isn’t South Africa. The white man outnumbers the negro nine to one in this country.” If the vast majority of voters are white, it pays to stoke up racial resentments to garner their votes. This cold calculation, not an inadvertent triggering of latent racial resentment, is the core of what Lopez calls strategic racism.
“Racism undoubtedly generated intense resentment, but political entrepreneurs worked long and hard to stoke this fury and then to channel it into hostility toward liberal government in general…Dog whistle racism certainly has elements of reaction to it, but it is more than an inchoate flare up of latent hostility. Instead, the Southern Strategy represents first and foremost the strategic manipulation of racism. Indeed, its purposeful reinvention.”
Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative members involved in our Radio-Active campaign took a close look at Charlie Sykes’ broadcasts immediately following the unrest in Sherman Park beginning on August 13 - well after Sykes began receiving accolades for rejecting Trumpist conservatism. What we found in those broadcasts is Sykes repeatedly utilizing coded racial appeals, hyping up white fear of African Americans and the City of Milwaukee, sounding the alarm bells about alleged race wars and using it all to advance a conservative corporate worldview that rejects civil rights and the New Deal vision for government.
To begin with, Sykes spends significant air time amping up fear and alarm over the unrest.
“Do you understand exactly how dangerous this situation had become in the city of Milwaukee? We were much closer to a Dallas-type situation then I think that we realize. I’m just trying to highlight how ugly what happened over the weekend was in this community.”(WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
This repeated refrain about the “ugliness” and danger of what “is happening in Milwaukee” is frequently foregrounded in general alarms about the danger and violence of Milwaukee in general.
“Let’s start before Saturday afternoon. Five men were killed in shootings within a nine hour span Friday evening to Saturday morning, the Milwaukee police and the medical examiner’s office said.“(WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
Anyone who lives in the Milwaukee area, or almost any other major metro area for that matter, understands consciously or unconsciously, that when conservative talkers speak about violence in the city, they’re talking about black people. But this is just a small trickle in the stream of coded racial terms that follow in Sykes’ explanation for the events in Sherman Park.
“But also you have to deal with the social pathologies of the underclass. You can’t just have generation after generation of under these circumstances, the breakdown of all the social institutions that used to hold together this community…If you constantly tell young people you are not accountable, there will be no consequence for your action, if you drop out of school, if you father children out of wedlock, if you commit crimes, if you make yourself unemployable, it’s not your fault, it’s ‘the man’, well it has consequences.” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
Note the turn in Sykes’ complex racial jujitsu here. Without explicitly mentioning race, Sykes blames the Sherman Park unrest essentially on the alleged immorality of black people, committing crimes, having children out of wedlock and refusing to take responsibility for their problems. But he also cunningly blames the incidents on civil rights concerns about disparate treatment of African Americans in our criminal justice system and many other aspects of our society. To raise concerns about racial disparity, no matter how clear and well documented, is to incite violence and create danger for the broader white society.
“The reality is that unless the black community and the black leadership basically steps back and says okay has the relentless playing of the race card, has the demonization of white society, has the demonization of white police officers, has it led to this dangerous stew of toxic racial prejudice that manifested itself over the weekend?” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 16, 2016).
Indeed, creating fear and resentment among whites is what Sykes’ broadcast is all about. Reprising an old trick that we saw Sykes’ pull when he helped sink the Northridge Mall in the late ‘90s, Sykes goes on to imply that this “toxic stew” of immoral black people and militant civil rights demands is making Milwaukee a dangerous place to live or even visit.
“The real tragedy is that what happened this weekend might be the thing that breaks the back of that neighborhood. That would be a huge tragedy. This is how neighborhoods and cities become like Detroit. This is the kind of thing that drives people out...This kind of violence is the kind of thing that creates poverty because they drive out the people who want to invest in the community.” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
Having his cake and eating it too, Sykes repeatedly claims that the situation is tragic for the Sherman Park neighborhood, while stoking the racial fears that he likely hopes will have negative consequences for the city. Several times throughout the week, Sykes calls attention to a social media reporter who decided to cease his coverage of the Sherman Park situation.
“I’m looking here at a Twitter at a YouTube video just posted by a social reporter, he goes by the name of Tim Pool does videos of things, says I’m pulling out of Milwaukee because the anti-white sentiment is boiling out of control and he’s got all these social media sites, he says I’ve been covering the Milwaukee unrest but the racial tensions are so ugly and it is so volatile here in Milwaukee I’m pulling out. It’s hard to overstate how ugly the situation is in Milwaukee.” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
In subsequent broadcasts Sykes repeatedly returns to this incident. Listening to the constant references, the jujitsu becomes apparent. The journalist did indeed leave the scene of the unrest in Sherman Park. But Sykes over and over again uses the reference to imply that there is widespread and dangerous resentment of white people in Milwaukee in general by stating “he is pulling out of Milwaukee because it is too dangerous for white people.” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 16, 2016).
Incidentally, anyone who lives in Milwaukee like I do, or even spends significant time in the city, knows that this alarm is poisonous hyperbole. Over the years I have traveled or spent time in almost every neighborhood in Milwaukee, as have my wife and children, and we virtually never have experienced any racial prejudice against whites or felt unsafe. But reality be damned, Sykes’ broadcasts are about stoking up fear over this phantom racial antagonism.
“Heather McDonald (of the Manhattan Institute) wrote a piece. She worries that the riots here mark a dark turn from simply anti-police activism to what she called a broader race war which only one side fights. She said the thugs who torched businesses and police cars, assaulted cops and fired, went after ‘white bitches’ among other targets and talks about the way white people were ‘hunted’, the were chased, they were robbed, they were beaten…I want to talk about where this raw racism comes from.” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 16, 2016).
Throughout his broadcasts, Sykes pushes this angle calling the people who took part in the Sherman Park unrest “terrorists” and “thugs,” and implying that the violence is part of a broader anti-white political agenda fomented by concerns over disparate treatment of racial minorities by the police.
“I’m old enough to remember back in the 1960s where this same patter, where you would have riots and then you would have political figures who would then use those riots or the threat of those riots to advance their ideological or their political agenda…A lot of the 1960s urban policy was driven by this implicit or explicit threat of the rolling riot, ‘You better do or you better give us what we want, otherwise it’s going to explode’.” (WTMJ Radio broadcast, August 15, 2016).
There you have it. Allegedly entitled racial minorities who refuse to take personal responsibility and are the authors of their own misery, invent grievances over racial disparities and foment violence as a means to frighten white people and make more unreasonable demands on their pocketbooks. This is the story that the old Charlie Sykes has told us for years and that the “new” Charlie Sykes continues to tell.
The obvious question to ask is, is Sykes’ racial appeal really all that different from Donald Trump’s? Does Sykes deserve to be treated as an ethical and conscientious objector to Trumpism’s dark side just because his racial dog whistle is more subtle and less audible? Or do the contrasting styles of racial manipulation boil down to the same divide and conquer objective in service to the same elite interests?
Either way, there is no doubt that Charlie Sykes’ supposed reinvention of himself as a champion of reason and tolerance, even as he continues to cultivate racial antagonism, is a very clever move. He is now a nationally recognized figure and will probably be pursuing a lucrative position in the national spotlight. As Ian Haney Lopez wrote, “the driving force behind strategic racism is not racial animus for its own sake, or brutalizing non-whites out of hate. It is the pursuit of power, money and/or status.” Stay tuned to see whether Charlie gets what he really wants by this new twist on his same-old tactics.
In the meantime, our Radio-Active team members will continue to monitor the five right-wing radio talkers in the Milwaukee media market (Belling, McKenna, Weber, Wagner and whoever replaces Sykes) to call out their racial appeals - coded or blatant - and work to hold them accountable. This kind of racist rhetoric on our two most powerful AM radio stations is unacceptable. If you agree, please consider supporting our Radio-Active media accountability campaign by going online to pledge to join our Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative today: www.citizenactionwi.org/join_radioactive