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James B. Pratt Jr.

Tools are important in a society. As people who creatively think of ways to both understand and remedy problems, we develop toolboxes that are filled with data, language, and even perspectives that may help us tinker around the edges of our society.

At the same time, there are those who, one way or another, have developed toolboxes with inappropriate, rusty, dated tools, many of them beyond repair. These tools make us sick, infecting us with potentially deadly diseases causing persistent ailments and even death.

Among those tools can be dog whistles. In the hands of a dog trainer, or any pet owner for that matter, a dog whistle is a useful tool since, to the human ear, the sound of it when blown is only heard by those whose ears can hear the pitch.

In the human world, social scientists have applied this concept to our political and social discourses. In particular, Ian Haney-Lopez’s book “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class” offers an account of how historically, individuals on the left and the right — yes, both Democrats and Republicans — used veiled and coded language that function as “racial appeals to persuade white voters to support policies that favor the extremely rich yet threaten their own interests.” Only a trained ear can decipher some of these dog whistles. This consideration of how language works also connects to the law itself, particularly when we think of de jure and de facto racist laws.

What does this have to do with Albany? Let me bring your attention not another type of canine ... wolves. A bit over a month ago now, after numerous letters met with near silence and presentations before the commissioner to blank faces, I called for the impeachment of the mayor and two commissioners. I will direct you to Carlton Fletcher’s June 1st article in The Albany Herald.

In that article, Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, one of the individuals I claimed neglected their duties, suggested I somehow had become someone that “cries wolf” with the threat that somehow I may become like others who are summarily ignored and not taken seriously by community leaders. Now, on the surface, these statements seem like words of caution from a frustrated commissioner. However, upon closer look at the context of her words and the realities of my work and claims, we can hear the dog whistle ringing through.

You see, one of the tools of those who wish to maintain the status quo and is to deny the validity of real critiques and experiences while also claiming victimhood. This denies responsibility while both silencing and belittling those who dare speak up. Despite what I suppose are good intentions, given, as Fletcher has mentioned, she and I have broken bread together, Commissioner Fletcher’s statements provide us with a great example of the nefarious nature (regardless of intention) of dog whistles.

Often, the “boy who cried wolf” is taught in early childhood to promote truth-telling and honesty. The boy who cried wolf was dishonest and deceitful. Alluding to someone “crying wolf” implies that 1) they are lying and 2) there is no wolf, there is no real threat and when the time comes to alert the community the person “crying” will neither be respected nor believed. Well, as it concerns my presentations and letters to the board, the issues I have brought attention to are not some false cries or unfounded claims.

Despite her statement in the newspaper, Commissioner Fletcher has outright agreed with many of the issues I have brought to the board. Her response? A rendition of the oft-said refrain “you know government moves slow.” This type of double-talk enjoins the mayor, who at one meeting stated that myself and a colleague had no place to “chastise” the board, which refocuses attention away from the issues directly impacting their constituents and communities but frames the board as victims.

When you consistently deflect from the issues, it is easy to claim there are no “wolves.” This pattern leaves those of us who genuinely want to create sustainable change by reckoning with the ways racism, sexism and classism collectively harm our communities to deal with what Dr. King and others have called “white backlash.”

Historically, black people in Albany who have spoken up on issues around race and government responsibility were often ignored, labeled disruptive, violent and childish. Individuals like King, who are now praised for their valor and intellect, were once framed as dangerous and accused of inciting riots and violence. Likewise, through the dog whistles of our city leaders, members of our community have been unwarrantedly framed the same way. Unfortunately, there are no dogs here, just wolves in sheep’s clothing, using dog whistles to deny their own role in herding and preying on sheep. This is not new though. These same practices of denial, misrepresentation, inaction and silencing were documented during each major call for change.

I want to be clear. My interest is in creating a safer, more vibrant Albany that has moved beyond antagonism toward consensus. This, though, requires us to unite in confronting the actually vicious canines and systems that reproduce them. We have to confront lies that belittle and instead be willing to have the tough conversations that may make us uncomfortable or ashamed for a moment, but will afterward, maybe create a society where we truly can judge by character and not perception.

It is important to note that, historically, black people in Albany who have spoken up on issues around race and government responsibility were often ignored, labeled disruptive, violent, and childish. One can refer back to Dr. William Anderson, who was summarily ignored when he desired to speak with the Albany Commission concerning issues around race. Even individuals who are now praised were once framed as dangerous and accused of inciting riots and violence.

Unlike Commissioner Fletcher, and occasionally Commissioner (Chad) Warbington, others on the board have stayed silent, which is a privilege and is how power is preserved, by denial and strategic silence. This practice connects with tokenism and pitting two black people against each other, saying, “See this black person speaks well, is calm ... be like him.” I know how this because not too long ago, leaders in this community used me as the “good boy.” It is amazing how things change because now, a great mentor and friend, Michael Harper, who fought against the sagging pants law over a decade ago, has become the “good boy” that “addresses the board with respect.”

Showing passion and emotion for some then becomes dangerous. Of course, our nation’s founders and the First Amendment would not agree with this sentiment, though they too did not apply their beliefs to black people.

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