Dog Whistle Politics

Dog Whistle PoliticsI recently read Ian Haney Lopez’s excellent Dog Whistle Politics. The subtitle of the book is, “How coded racial appeals have reinvented racism & wrecked the middle class.” It is an important book because it gets at the fundamental political problem in America: how is it that white middle class voters continue to vote against their long term interests in so much of the country? Thomas Frank tackled this question in What’s the Matter With Kansas? So it isn’t surprising that Lopez deals with a lot of the same issues. But whereas Frank saw no racism, Lopez sees plenty.

Based upon things that Frank has written since Kansas? I suspect that his thinking has changed. But in that book, he dismissed the idea that racism wasn’t the reason that people were voting Republican. He based this on the fact that the people he interviewed and observed were not racists. But as I discussed recently in Modern Racism, racism is always changing. It bugs me that people make such a big deal when someone says, “Let me tell you about the negro.” Because that isn’t where the power of racism is.

Lopez sees two kinds of racism: common sense and self-interested (although that may not be the term he uses). What’s surprising is that he doesn’t shy away from the latter. He fully admits that whites have something to lose with racial equality: as bad as a white man’s life may be, at least he is still white—still a member of the ruling race. And I do think that is something that we should talk about more. Of course, it is common sense racism that is most pernicious. It is the kind of racism that everyone has that is based upon historical racism and its continuing effects. It is what made Reagan’s “welfare queen in a Cadillac” work as a racial appeal—everyone knew he was talking about a black woman, because everyone “knew” that blacks are on welfare.

Parts of the book are downright encouraging. For example, he discusses polling of the Bush-Dukakis campaign. When the Willie Horton ad came out, there was a quick shift of support toward Bush. But after Jesse Jackson publicly pointed out that the ad was a racist appeal, the polling went back to where it had been. Racial appeals are only effective as long as they remain hidden. Just the same, it can be difficult to call such things out. As it was, when Jackson pointed out the racial appeal in the ad, the right pushed back—of course Jackson would see it that way! But in that case, people thought about it and decided they knew how it had effected their thinking. (Or non-thinking.)

As much as parts of the book are optimistic, the overall story it tells is deeply troubling. What we see is that every generation comes up with new racist appeals. It is like a human with a disease that has a certain symptom. We treat that symptom but then a different symptom shows up, because the underlying disease hasn’t changed. And what is especially bad here in the United States is that the racist appeals work largely because of the economic inequality we have in this nation that is very clearly racial in its makeup: if you want to be rich, it is a very good idea to be born white. At the same time, we can’t do anything about the economic inequality because of how well the racist appeals work.

Lopez makes one really important point that I think liberals need to think a lot about. That is that we can’t sit back and let demographic changes sweep liberals into power. And the reason for this is that who is defined as “white” changes over time. At one time in this country, Italians weren’t considered white, but they sure are now. Think of Antonin Scalia. So eventually, the conservatives will go about defining Latinos, for example, as white and crafting their language so that the Latinos know which group it taking what’s theirs (as opposed to which group is really taking it). And given the shocking success of the conservative movement over the last five decades, I see no reason to think that they won’t succeed.

But I think that Lopez offers us, especially those of us who are white, with some good advice moving forward:

The most basic step is to consciously consider race. The research is clear that colorblindness does not help us overcome racism; on the contrary, colorblindness as a strategy (rather than as a goal) forms part of the problem. Attempting to ignore what one has inevitably already noticed only makes it more difficult to recognize and thus control internalized racial stereotypes. Likewise, averting one’s eyes to how race might be operating only makes one more susceptible to dog whistle manipulation. The racial subterfuge of coded appeals that has done so much to wreck the middle class is easy to pierce, but only if one consciously mulls over how race might be involved.

Once the basic step of watching out for race is taken, the next is to raise one’s voice. Rightwing racial attacks on liberalism depend on cowing into silence those opposed to continuing racial demonetization, thus allowing dog whistle calumnies to spread unchallenged. Connected to this, colorblindness also operates as an etiquette that treats talking about race as impolite and even racist. Those who discuss racism are accused of being the real racists—again, as if pulling a fire alarm means one set the fire, or dialing 911 means one committed the crime. Refusing to be silenced, to defeat dog whistle racism and restore government to the side of the middle class will require as many of us as possible to go ahead and sound that alarm.

The claims that the United States is post-racial (or anything even close to it) are as absurd as the Stephen Colbert claim that he doesn’t see race. In the early 1960s, when blacks were murdered with impunity and widely denied the right to vote, 80% of white people claimed there was racial equality. This is always the claim. So don’t be afraid to raise your voice. Those claiming the only racism is against whites will all be proven wrong within a generation. Just like always.


Many of the reviews of the book on Amazon are like this one, “The author of this book actually is beating the drum for reverse racism, and not equal opportunity.” It doesn’t help that such people have not actually read the book. Anyone bring up these issues will be blasted by the right in this way, because the right understands that dog whistle racial appeals are their primary weapon.

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