Calling the Protests a 'City Problem' Is a Dangerous Dog Whistle | Opinion

While the police clashed with protesters in Denver and numerous other cities across the country on the evening of May 30, George Brauchler, the elected Republican district attorney for many of Denver's suburban counties, took to Twitter to write, "If you live outside of #Denver, how happy are you tonight to live outside of Denver?"

In those 16 words, Brauchler not only showed a remarkable lack of empathy. He sounded a dangerous, long-standing conservative dog whistle that helps illustrate one of the roots of the current national unrest. Calling the protests a "city problem" denies America's history of systemic racism—and its strong geographic components.

As the Reverend Al Sharpton and others have explained, the present protests are not just about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor or the patterns of police violence directed at minority populations. They are a reaction to a prolonged and enduring oppression and exclusion that tracks the country's history into the present.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has helped popularize the policy-driven geographic components of systemic racism. The practice of redlining in the mid-20th century—withholding home loans, insurance and other investment from neighborhoods deemed "hazardous"—enabled the segregation that continues to mold neighborhoods and metropolitan areas across the country today. It enforces racial exclusion, socioeconomic instability and conditions that allow the "city" and the "suburb" to take on potent political meanings.

"White flight" from cities to the newly created suburbs expanded this segregated geography into larger metropolitan regions in the postwar years. White flight also actively undermined cities, creating a cycle of deterioration. As the more affluent people moved out of urban cores, significant tax bases left with them. Suburban schools, economies and families thrived, and persisted in certain urban enclaves, but many who could not leave the cities were left to struggle.

In the words of a University of Wisconsin research institute report from the late 1970s, "cities are seen increasingly as deteriorating ghettos for the poor, the unemployed, and the disadvantaged—above all, for minorities." Cities, and specifically the idea of the "inner city," increasingly became popularly perceived as places to escape and fear, and the urban threat was given a racialized face.

By contrast, the suburbs were increasingly seen as safe havens—the epitome of the American Dream. As such, they needed to be protected from this external, urban threat. While the economies and desirability of many of the nation's cities—Denver clearly among them—have dramatically shifted and come to rival the suburbs in recent decades, the stigma clearly persists.

That stigma drives fear, which both political parties have weaponized. But it's best captured in the Republican Party's established use of "law and order" rhetoric. Scholarship has well-documented that this language has its roots in the reactions to the civil rights movement and the corresponding ascent of modern conservatism. It can be seen starting with George Wallace, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, and it runs through to the present.

Protest Denver
People lie down in the middle of the street in front of the Colorado State Capitol to protest on June 1 in Denver. Michael Ciaglo/Getty

On the 2016 campaign trail, Donald Trump proudly stated "I am the law and order candidate," and in recent days, he has consistently returned to this language while calling for states and the military to marshal violence to "dominate" protesters in cities.

In light of this history, as well as the president's statements and recent actions, Brauchler's tweet is not an aberration. Rather, it is a reflection of a political history that has contributed to producing the present Trump-dominated Republican Party and the pervasive unrest.

When Brauchler asks his audience to relish not living in the state and region's largest city, he is not only invoking this history and these forces. He is helping to perpetuate them. The framing of the city as the specific, bounded locus for issues of race, inequality and violence insulates the rest of the population from feeling that they are connected to, and part of, the underlying problems that have produced the present unrest. Doing so works to mask their systemic nature, illuminating in part both why they and the protests persist.

Joshua C. Wilson is associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. He is the author of The New States of Abortion Politics and The Street Politics of Abortion: Speech, Violence, and America's Culture Wars.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.