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“Dog whistle politics” is the shrewd and telling label that Ian Haney López has coined for the coded race-baiting used by Republican politicians to win elections and shape public policy debates, in his terrific, must-read new book of the same title. The hissing of the dog whistle, audible only to some, is his metaphor for the sophisticated and veiled racial appeals — about “illegal aliens,” states rights, sharia law, personal responsibility — that, with Pavlovian predictability, trigger hostility against nonwhites in many white Americans.
What makes the book especially important, however, is its linking of this new, strategic racism to some white Americans’ “self-defeating hostility toward government,” which in turn enables the growing wealth gap and inequality in the country. Or as López puts it, “Race constitutes the dark magic by which middle-class voters have been convinced to turn government over to the wildly affluent.”
Because there is such opprobrium heaped upon racists, López first takes on the simplistic notion that racism equals hatred, exemplified by things like Klansmen burning crosses. Thinking about racism in this way makes it seem remote, a thing of the past. But López also sees problems with the alternative notion of “institutional racism.” While the term does correctly emphasize how past discrimination has become embedded in social structures and practices, he says, “the question of culpable individuals drops out.” As he notes, while dog whistle racism does not necessarily refer to individual bias, it does account for politicians’ “willingness to manipulate racial animus in pursuit of power.”
Finally, he takes issue with the notion of “implicit” racism: that we all harbor “hardwired” biases, which can be quickly activated by certain cues. He sees this as unconstructive: If such bias is unconscious and universal, how do we get rid of it? López prefers the term “commonsense racism” to refer to how, in a still-segregated culture steeped in racial stereotypes, racism infiltrates almost all of our minds and takes work to combat. It is this commonsense racism that right-wing politicians cynically exploit for their own gain.
López locates the origin of this exploitation in what I found to be a surprising story: George Wallace, of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” fame, had been something of a racial moderate by Southern standards until he lost Alabama’s 1958 gubernatorial election because he was seen as “soft” on race. Four years later, he ran as a rabid segregationist and won.
This was the beginning of the Republican Party becoming the party of white people — one mobilized by a sense of white identity under threat. In the mold of Wallace and Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, too, would soon opt for race-baiting through his coded appeals to “law and order” and his “Southern strategy.”
Ronald Reagan, with his apocryphal stories about “welfare queens,” was often not so coded. But Reagan’s innovation, as López notes, was to use veiled racial appeals not only to get elected, but also to launch his regressive public policies, especially lower taxes on the rich. As López emphasizes, “For Reagan, conservatism and racial resentment were inextricably fused.” And in a carefully argued section, López confirms how racial animus is at the core of Tea Party politics and is exploited perfectly by “billionaires behind the hate” like the Koch brothers, who “saw in the fear and anger directed at Obama … an opportunity to cast their agenda in populist terms.”
Democrats don’t come off all that much better. Let’s not forget Clinton’s vow to “end welfare as we know it,” which he kept. And López reserves some of his most disappointed prose for Obama, writing that “Obama’s refusal to offer a liberal counterweight to right-wing mythmaking may have contributed to the conservative resurgence” in 2010.
López argues that we need to raise our voices, reclaim and redefine “racism” to mean a lot more than active malice, confront commonsense racism by clearly identifying racist stereotypes and practices, and call out dog whistle politics and its wealthy promoters. Because if we don’t, racism will continue to manifest as a new, sneaky discourse that, ironically, keeps the majority of white people, as well as people of color, in their place.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.