Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class
As I write, partisan media are backpedaling furiously from anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy. Certain sectors made Bundy a hero because he refused to pay taxes, claiming government authority stopped at state level. But tape has come forward showing Bundy making sweeping statements about “the Negro,” culminating in asking: “Are they better off as slaves?” But nobody who reads Ian Haney López will find such language surprising anymore.
For half a century now, Haney López asserts, subliminal racial language has inflected American political discourse. Even as Americans vocally reject white supremacy, “Christian Identity,” and other unreconstructed apartheid, outwardly neutral discourse with racial implications has conquered politics. It’s surprisingly bipartisan, pervasive, and successful. Politicians who use what Haney López calls “coded racial appeals” get elected; those who avoid it, don’t.
Politicians will avoid talking about race directly. But they’ll discuss “the undeserving poor, illegal aliens, and Sharia law,” as Haney López writes, themes which have indubitable racial inferences. When Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens,” nobody pictured white trailer trash; his implications were distinctly anti-black. When Bill Clinton prosecuted drug-war tactics with especial vigor, citizens caught in his dragnet shared characteristics based on skin color.
Haney López calls this “dog whistle politics” because it’s completely inaudible on one level, yet irrefutably present. The connection between, say, race and “law and order,” isn’t superficially obvious. But long-term cultural cues, which correlate criminality with skin melanin, have created an unconscious stereotype of criminals as especially brown. When politicians, particularly white politicians, promise to enforce laws, cut welfare, prosecute fraud, and return the savings to you, the taxpayer, they implicitly promise to preserve and extend white privilege.
Don’t look to one political party for racial language, though. While activists hype Republican dog whistles, Haney López reports, the technique was invented by Southern Democrats, especially George Wallace, a former moderate supported by the NAACP before discovering that race-baiting worked electorally. Jimmy Carter had to walk back language about “racial purity,” and Bill Clinton supervised the execution of a brain-damaged black inmate to prove his Tough On Crime credentials.
Dog whistle language has had chilling effects on American discourse. When politicians cite old racial stereotypes without naming race, they gain plausible deniability. And when somebody points out that such-and-such has grim racial implications, the first person who says this gets called “racist.” This stops serious efforts to redress bigotry’s lingering implications, since anyone who would remedy, say, systemic black poverty, fears repercussions for bringing race into public dialog.
Such sub-rosa racial language, however, hasn’t really limited its consequences to select populations. By severing the “we’re all in this together” coalitions that propelled the New Deal and Great Society, politicians have undercut support for post-WWII social policies that fostered a growing American middle class. Far from protecting white privilege, coded racial language has democratized poverty and hastened concentrations of wealth unseen since Robber Baron days.
In this, Haney López echoes Howard Zinn. Both observe that American racism didn’t just happen; going back to colonial times, wealthy interests encouraged racial animosity because if black, red, and poor white people fought each other, they’d never join forces against the rich whites controlling their lives. Racism, then, has never ultimately been about race. Like Cliven Bundy, race-baiting demagogues want no organized opposition to them keeping gross wealth unopposed.
Haney López readily admits that your milage may vary, depending on your definition of racism. Public displays of Archie Bunker-style bigotry have become vanishingly rare in American politics. Without burning crosses and N-bombs, it’s easy to believe racism has vanished from American public life. Indeed, in later chapters, Haney López admits that opponents can defuse unconscious racial appeals, by simply using the dictionary to call them what they are.
These conclusions should surprise nobody, social conservatives least of all. PJ O’Rourke, no bleeding heart himself, observed nearly twenty-five years ago that significant public rhetoric contains oblique racial language. Gut revulsion at overt racism is, today, overwhelmingly bipartisan. If activists, politicians, and common citizens join together in refusing to tolerate dog whistle appeals, race-baiting demagogues will quickly find themselves starved for voters and funds.
Recent decades have seen undeniably ugly turns in American politics. Circumstances have hit new lows when $4 billion for food stamps elicits more outrage than $80 billion for bank bailouts. Haney López persuasively hangs this divisiveness on covert appeals to class, gender, and especially race. Fortunately, things aren’t uniformly grim. If citizens reject dog whistle language and stand together, we needn’t accept greedy forces disuniting our states for short-term gain.