Today the Weekend Reader brings you Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López, Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley where he focuses on racial justice in American law. In Dog Whistle Politics, López outlines the connection between modern racism and an unstable middle class. Republicans gain votes from wealthy white Americans by using hinted-at (and sometimes blatant) racism. Republican leaders promise to put an end to undocumented immigration, they promote Islamophobia, devote themselves to slashing crime, and campaign on creating more opportunity for the middle class, all in an effort to gain the approval of white people who will vote Republican despite their best interests. In actuality, once elected, these leaders do the exact opposite—giving more opportunities to corporations, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and limiting social services.
You can purchase the book here.
In the final month of the 2008 presidential campaign, a newsletter distributed by a local California Republican group claimed that if Obama was elected his image would appear on food stamps, instead of on dollar bills like other presidents. The broadside featured a phony $10 bill, now relabeled as “Ten Dollars Obama Bucks” in seals on each corner. In the middle, superimposed on the body of a donkey, was Obama’s face, eyes twinkling and with a wide grin. Above that, the mock bill read “United States Food Stamps.” Rounding out the racial parody, on the left there was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a slab of ribs; on the right, a pitcher of Kool Aid and a large slice of watermelon.
In the swirl of controversy that erupted, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, accepted responsibility for circulating the cartoon, which she had received in a number of chain e-mails before she decided to reprint it, and she was quick to apologize: “I absolutely apologize to anyone who was offended. That clearly wasn’t my attempt.” She was, nevertheless, just a little befuddled by the outrage.
In what way could this be construed as racist, she wondered? Nothing about the imagery suggested race, she explained, as fried chicken and ribs, Kool Aid and watermelon were “just food.” “I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.” Fedele also said she was making no effort to connect Obama to welfare, or to food stamps in particular. Yet her text introducing the cartoon said “If elected, what bill would he be on????? Food Stamps, what else!”
What, then, was the intent behind circulating the cartoon? Fedele claimed she meant to criticize Obama—ironically, for nothing less than injecting race into the presidential campaign. Over the summer Obama had warned an audience in Springfield, Missouri, that John McCain’s campaign might stoop to scare tactics, charging: “Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills. You know, he’s risky.”
Fedele was incensed. “I thought his statement was outrageous and uncalled for and inappropriate and everything else I can think to call it.” According to a local reporter, Fedele circulated the cartoon “to criticize Obama for saying over the summer that he doesn’t look like the presidents whose images are on dollar bills. She said she didn’t think it was appropriate for him to draw attention to his race.”
One more detail deserves to be mentioned before we step back to assess this contretemps. The cartoon’s original creator was a liberal blogger who held a minor position with the Minnesota Democratic Party and who planned to vote for Obama. He created the cartoon and posted it on his website “to lampoon Republicans who are afraid of government welfare programs and fearful of a Democratic president. He said that ‘there’s some people that are never going to get it.’ ” He was more right than he knew, as apparently many of those he sought to lampoon instead embraced and circulated his cartoon as a biting impeachment of Obama.
Punch, Parry, and Kick
Even as late as the 1950s, it was commonplace for racial epithets to lace public discourse, while today direct references to race make relatively few appearances. Yet as we’ve seen, race has hardly disappeared from politics. The once pervasive use of epithets has morphed into the coded transmission of racial messages through references to culture, behavior, and class. We live in a political milieu saturated with ugly racial innuendo.
But if so, why is there so little pushback from liberals? Why is racial pandering allowed to continue virtually unchallenged? Partly, conservative race-talk has adopted several strikingly effective strategies to insulate constant race baiting.