Subliminal racism repackaged

Dog Whistle Politics:

How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class

Antiracists in the United States face a contradiction: racism is universally abhorred and rejected, yet racial oppression persists—in some ways, as viciously as under Jim Crow. As Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner Donald Sterling recently learned, a racist comment can end a career, even for a wealthy, powerful man. On the other hand, there are more Black men in prison than were enslaved in 1850. Our first Black president has deported more undocumented immigrants than his white predecessor. In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney López gives an account of how racism has persisted in US politics, even as open appeals to white supremacy have become taboo. He further argues that coded racial appeals, or dog whistling, are essential to understanding economic inequality.

Haney López calls dog whistling an example of “strategic racism,” using race to achieve some other end. When dog whistling, politicians will appeal to white resentment of nonwhites in order to gain votes. Dog whistle appeals never mention race but use language that suggests a racist message. As Richard Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman put it in his diary, “President emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to.” 

During his presidency, Nixon railed against “law breakers,” including civil rights protesters and muggers, ghetto rioters, and murderers in the same category of criminals that had to be punished. Thus, Nixon helped birth in the minds of white Americans an enduring association of Blacks with crime. In the 1980 presidential race, Ronald Reagan warned of the “Chicago welfare queen,” a master moocher earning a six-figure income through welfare fraud. He played to resentment in a fable about a “young fellow” buying T-bone steaks at the supermarket with food stamps, while Reagan’s audience, implicitly white and hard working, could only afford hamburger. When Reagan first used his steak story, he described a “strapping young buck,” a Black man, but this character later became a “young fellow.” In dog whistle appeals, race must remain unspoken and only suggested.

In examining an incident that has become synonymous with racial demagoguery, Haney López sees some hope for fighting dog whistling. In the 1988 presidential election, George H. W. Bush produced a television ad accusing his opponent Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. The ad told the story of Willie Horton, a Black prison inmate in Dukakis’s home state of Massachusetts who escaped on a weekend furlough, a program Dukakis approved as governor. Horton then assaulted a white couple in their home. The smear worked, and Bush pulled ahead in the polls. However, before the election, Jesse Jackson began speaking about the implicit racial appeal of the ad. After Jackson’s protests, Bush’s lead began to shrink, but not enough to cost him the election. Although the Willie Horton ad demonstrated dog whistling’s efficacy, Haney López points out that the tactic is only effective as long as no one points out the subtle racial language. Therefore, leftists should not duck the issue of racism for fear of alienating whites.

Although the Republicans pioneered the practice, the Democrats have their own version of dog whistling, in which they indicate to whites that they are not going to lift a finger to address racial inequality. Haney López recounts how during the 1992 election, Bill Clinton sent implicit messages to whites when he attended the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a severely brain-damaged Black man convicted of murder. In the same campaign, he distanced himself from the civil rights movement by criticizing hip-hop artist Sister Souljah at an event organized by Jesse Jackson. President Obama has also subtly appealed to whites by attacking Blacks. In a speech during his first presidential campaign, Obama accused Black men of poor parenting, and chastised Black parents for feeding their children cold fried chicken for breakfast. Although speaking before a Black audience, the speech was in fact addressed to whites, assuring them that he was not the angry, Black militant of their nightmares.

In another chapter, Haney López examines the inadequacy of “colorblindness” as a response to racism. The term entered American life in Justice John Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that enshrined “separate but equal” treatment for Blacks. Harlan declared that the Constitution was “color blind,” not because he believed in racial equality, which he did not, but to prevent excessive mistreatment of Blacks. Civil rights lawyers picked up on the phrase to argue that the Constitution prohibited Jim Crow. However, segregationists also used “colorblindness” to argue that the government should make no consideration of race at all. 

Advocates of colorblind thinking conceive of racism as a set of attitudes and ideas, rather than a form of domination. To abolish racism, they reason, people should simply stop thinking about it, with no need to destroy the social institutions that gave whites the power to oppress nonwhites to begin with. Thus, colorblindness works hand in hand with dog whistle appeals: politicians are safe as long as they do not explicitly argue for white supremacy. Furthermore, because colorblindness forbids any mention of race, programs to ameliorate racial inequality become “reverse racism.” Colorblindness gives an antiracist gloss to racial domination.

Looking to the future, Haney López argues that the growing Hispanic segment of the population will not render dog whistling obsolete. The non-Hispanic white portion of the population is shrinking, and may represent less than half the US population by 2050. For the Republican Party, whose base is overwhelmingly white, this presumably spells disaster. However, the Republicans only need to win among a slightly larger portion of nonwhite voters to stay in the running in presidential elections. In the 2004 election, George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, more than enough to win reelection. Furthermore, the boundaries of American racial categories are not fixed. In the twentieth century, white ethnic groups, like Italians, Irish, Poles, and others, integrated into the broader white majority, shedding their status as stigmatized pseudo-whites. George Wallace contributed to this process when he toured the South with a coterie of speakers representing various white ethnic groups, acting as a united white coalition against civil rights. In the future, white Hispanics could, like other “white ethnics,” become “fully” white. If one counts white Hispanics as whites, the white population will not shrink, but grow 7 percent as a portion of the population by 2045. “Demographics,” Haney López writes, “will not save us.”

In addition to a history of dog whistling, Dog Whistle Politics is also intended as an explanation for today’s gargantuan gap between the rich and everyone else. The key, according to Haney López, is how the Republicans have used dog whistling to win elections, and have done the bidding of the wealthy once in office. Haney López criticizes Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? for dismissing race as an explanation for conservatism’s mass appeal in US politics. Frank argues that the Republicans had bamboozled poor people by appeals to cultural issues, against abortion, gay marriage, and gun control. As a consequence, working-class people failed to vote for their own economic interests, which, according to Frank, means voting for the Democratic Party. Important as these issues might be, Haney López rightly argues that the relative decline of unvarnished white supremacist politics does not mean that racism is not influencing whites’ political loyalties.

In spite of the criticism, Haney López begins with the same dubious premise as Frank, that whites are abandoning the party representing their economic interests, the Democrats. He states that the Democrats represent the welfare of the “broad middle class” (everyone but the rich), and only briefly pauses to defend it. However, any analysis of why working-class people have abandoned the Democratic Party will be hopelessly confused if that analysis ignores the Democrats’ role in attacking the working class over the past thirty years. Inequality grew during the Clinton presidency, and the United States lost nearly two million manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2001, a result of Clinton’s North American Free Trade Act. Clinton also fulfilled his promise to “end welfare as we know it,” gutting a pillar of the New Deal. 

ISR editor Paul D’Amato wrote of What’s the Matter with Kansas?: “The central question in Frank’s book could be made about workers who vote Democratic: How to explain why workers are giving their votes to a party that takes their vote for granted and then pushes policies which promote a corporate agenda?” While discussing the Clinton presidency, Haney López acknowledges that the Democrats have abandoned New Deal liberalism and suggests that by borrowing from the Republicans’ dog whistling strategy, “they inevitably adopted not only some of the GOP’s racial politics but some of its economic agenda as well.” This may serve as an explanation for cuts to welfare. It cannot explain the Democrats’ commitment to free trade and financial deregulation. Nor can it explain Clinton’s cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, overwhelmingly popular government programs among all races. Haney López’s premise that the Democrats are the party of the common people does not stand up to scrutiny. There is no mystery behind the absence of class-conscious voting in a political system with two parties of the rich.

Marxists have long been concerned with how the ruling class uses racism to divide workers against each other. This book is a welcome account of how politicians continue this practice in the post-civil rights era. However, the author’s partisan commitments impede his ability to explain the connection between race and economic inequality.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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