The Democrats in my adopted state of Florida selected Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum as their 2018 candidate for governor. The Republicans picked Representative Ron DeSantis as their guy. Shortly after the election DeSantis set off a bit of a tempest when he said, “Let’s build off the success we’ve had on Gov. [Rick] Scott,” DeSantis said. “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.” This remark was met with a reply of “it is to early for racism” from a colleague of mine, to which I replied, “these days, it is never too early for racism.” But, is his remark actually racist?
The problem with DeSantis’ remark is that linking black people and monkeys is a well-established tool of racists. As would be suspected, it has been argued that DeSantis has begun engaging in racist dog-whistling. A second alleged offenses is his describing Gillum as “articulate” which is a term that has an unfortunate history in the context of race. This situation raises, once again, the matter of whether such remarks are racist.
In defense of DeSantis, it could be argued that while he might have chosen his words unwisely, it does not follow that his remarks are racist or that he is a racist. On the face of it, references to monkeys need not be racist. As many have noted, George Bush was often compared to a chimp by other white people without any plausible racist intent. The Monkey Business yacht, made infamous by Gary Hart, does not seem to have been putting forth a racist message. And, of course, people routinely use “monkeying around” and “monkey business” without any racist intent at all. As such, it could be claimed that DeSantis’ monkey reference was not racist because it has common, non-racist applications.
One obvious reply to this defense is that while monkey comparisons are not necessarily racist, using them against a black person usually is racist and this is well known. From a practical standpoint, an experienced politician like DeSantis should be aware of how this would sound. As such, at the very least he can be criticized for not being more careful in his choice of words. At worst, he can be regarded as starting his campaign with a racist dog-whistle.
It could be claimed that the remark itself is not inherently racist, so what matters is DeSantis’ intent. DeSantis’ defenders claim that he had no racist intent and is not a racist. His detractors, obviously enough, disagree. This matter can be addressed by considering DeSantis’ history. Those who think DeSantis is a racist can point to his role as an administrator of a racist Facebook page. To be fair to DeSantis, his claim that he was added without his knowledge or consent has some plausibility. Quite some time ago, I was made an administrator of a Facebook group without any action on my part. I was, obviously, notified of this by Facebook—but it is easy to imagine someone missing this announcement. Without clear evidence of DeSantis being actively involved in the page, this is hardly evidence of his being a racist.
DeSantis is also alleged to have attended a conference featuring extreme right wing speakers and DeSantis makes it clear that he is a hard-line conservative. While guilt by association can be psychologically appealing, it would be too quick to infer that DeSantis is a racist based on attending one such conference. As an academic, I have attended conferences featuring people with extreme views that I disagree with, such as postmodern “Marxists” and wannabe Nietzscheans. The same sort of thing could be true of DeSantis. That said, attending such a conference does provide some slim support to the claim of racism.
For many, the strongest evidence for DeSantis’ racism is his affiliation with Donald Trump. If Trump is not ideologically racist, he clearly has no moral qualms about using racism to his advantage (which might make him, on some moral theories, worse than a sincere racist). If DeSantis is embracing Trump’s values, then he is also embracing actual or instrumental racism—which would lend considerable credence to the claim that his monkey remark is racist. Whether DeSantis is racist or not, his remark is already creating political ripples. Those most likely to see his remark as racist were no doubt already planning to not vote for him. However, his remark will be a dog-whistle in the ear of some (whether intended or not). But, these people would no doubt already intend to vote for DeSantis rather than Gillum. However, the fear that Gillum will “monkey things up” if he gets elected could motivate citizens who would not otherwise vote to do so—just as Trump’s racist remarks (instrumental or actual) helped draw voters to the poll. DeSantis, though, might find that such a strategy might backfire—if it is his strategy.