Editor’s Note: LZ Granderson is a journalist and political analyst. He was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University, and is a co-host of ESPN’s SportsNation and ESPN LA 710’s Mornings with Keyshawn, Jorge and LZ. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @lzgranderson. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
White people linking black people to monkeys has been a racist trope for centuries.
That’s why when Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, used the phrase “monkey this up” when talking about the handling of the economy by his black Democratic opponent, it was hard to believe that the word choice was an accident.
Andrew Gillum, the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission, and the current mayor of the city, would be the state’s first black governor if elected. Every Sunshine State voter knows this. So why would DeSantis – a Yale and Harvard graduate – make such a well-documented, racially-charged remark on the opening day of the gubernatorial competition?
One school of thought is that it’s a dog whistle to rally white nationalists to the polls. Clearly this is what Dems believe, as illustrated by the party’s swift response to DeSantis’ remarks.
“It’s disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement. The sentiment was echoed by David Turner, the Democratic Governors Association deputy communications director, who said that “resorting to dog-whistle politics within hours of winning the GOP nomination shows a desperate candidate who will stoop to new lows in order to court and give voice to fringe elements of society.”
To Gillum’s credit, he didn’t spend a great deal of time chatting about the racial implications of DeSantis’ remark, saying, “I’m not going to get down in the gutter with DeSantis and Trump. There’s enough of that going on.”
He is smart not to take the bait.
Rallying the troops is certainly one way of interpreting the potential reason for DeSantis’ remarks. But so is goading an opponent.
Identity politics dominating an electoral conversation make for good tweets and jokes on late-night TV, but they also have proven to be a largely detrimental strategy for Democrats post-2008. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, when those running for state seats focused too much on not being the party of old, white men and not enough on, say, the benefits of the much maligned Affordable Care Act, nearly 1,000 legislative state seats went from blue to red and the number of Democratic-held governor’s offices went from 29 to 16, the party’s lowest since 1920. Of the nation’s 50 states, only eight are controlled by both blue legislatures and governor.
Why is this particularly important this year? Because the state legislatures and governors in place in 2021 will be in charge of redrawing the congressional district maps after the 2020 US Census.
At a time when the Democratic Party seems to be struggling to find its footing, allowing a platform to be hijacked by a “DeSantis is a racist” narrative would not help. It recalls the comments about half of Trump backers being racists and xenophobes that helped undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
This may be hard to digest, but voters really don’t care if you’re offended.
At least not enough to overshadow their concern over issues like jobs, health care, immigration and abortion.
Perhaps Gillum gets this, which is why he didn’t invest a lot of time in the conversation.
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Consider this: White House officials can’t say whether or not President Donald Trump is on a recording using the n-word, but there has been little evidence to show that the inability of officials to guarantee that the President didn’t make the remark makes a difference to his supporters. Sure, it’s off-putting to some, but there are more pressing concerns.
So instead of investing time and energy trying to saddle DeSantis with an inflammatory label, leaders of the Democratic party in Florida should concentrate on convincing uneasy voters their plan is better for the state than that of Gillum’s counterpart.
That’s not to say calling out racial dog whistles isn’t important, only that it shouldn’t be a dominant talking point.
A man with two Ivy League degrees is aware of the ramifications of linking black people to monkeys. Firing up a small fraction of his base is one result. Making his opponent’s entire campaign all about being offended is another.