Weekend Reader: ‘Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism And Wrecked The Middle Class’
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.
The Obama Bucks controversy illustrates the rhetorical punch, parry, and kick of dog whistle racial jujitsu. Here are the basic moves: (1) punch racism into the conversation through references to culture, behavior, and class; (2) parry claims of race-baiting by insisting that absent a direct reference to biology or the use of a racial epithet, there can be no racism; (3) kick up the racial attack by calling any critics the real racists for mentioning race and thereby “playing the race card.”
Punch. The punch is dog whistle’s coded race talk. In Fedele’s case, it lay in circulating a caricature of a grinning Obama visually linked to food stamps as well as to victuals stereotypically beloved by African Americans. Here was the “happy coon” from the era of black face minstrelsy, grinning in childish delight over fried chicken and watermelon showered on him by the foolish largess of welfare. This buffoon could soon be president, the cartoon chided.
More generally, recall the various bugaboos politicians have mobilized the country against: criminals, welfare cheats, Arab Muslim terrorists, and illegal aliens. All of these invoke a new demonology that looks remarkably like the old one: nonwhites threatening the nation. On one level, the terms have changed: the menace arises from defective cultures and reprehensible behavior, rather than from these as they directly link to biology, as in the past. But the core dynamic remains: punch race into the conversation at every possible turn by bombarding white society with messages about the need to rally together.
Parry. Dog whistlers then parry any resulting outrage by playing dumb, refusing to see the supposed connection between their comments and race. This too is pure dog whistle theater. A dog whistle is a coded racial appeal—one core point of the code being to foster deniability. The explicit racial appeal of yesteryear now invites political suicide. Dog whistle politics trades instead in studied ambiguity, where the lack of a smoking-gun racial epithet allows for proclamations of innocence. Fedele mimics this defense brilliantly when she says “it was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.” Fedele didn’t use a slur or directly refer to race; she didn’t say “coons like watermelon.” So how could this be about race? It was just a watermelon—and some fried chicken, ribs, and Kool Aid.
Kick. Beyond the repeated punch and parry, dog whistle politics almost invariably launches a stinging counterattack. This is the kick: when accused of racism, turn the tables and accuse your accuser of injecting race into the conversation. Thus, charged with racial provocation, Fedele flipped the script and claimed that she was merely responding to Obama’s egregious racial pandering. Recall that she explained her cartoon as a response to Obama’s having mentioned that Republicans might try to scare voters by pointing out that “he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.”
In complaining that Obama outrageously inserted race into the conversation, Fedele followed the McCain camp, which went after Obama as a racial opportunist for implying that the GOP might stoop to scaring voters about race. Obama’s warning was hardly far-fetched. Beyond the long history of dog whistling, the 2008 campaign itself was so saturated in racial ugliness—with vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and campaign crowds yelling “kill him!”—that the New York Times editorial page eventually castigated the McCain campaign for “race-baiting and xenophobia.” Nevertheless, McCain’s people fumed about Obama’s summertime warning. A day after Obama’s remarks, McCain’s campaign charged that “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck,” adding “it’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.” On the Today show, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis indignantly insisted “we are not going to let anybody paint John McCain, who has fought his entire life for equal rights for everyone, to be able to be painted as racist.”
Conservative discourse now maligns as racial bombthrowers those who protest race baiting in American politics. This claim that the critics of racial pandering are the real racists has a pedigree going back to the original dog whistle politician himself, George Wallace. As Wallace put it while on the hunt for angry white voters in 1968, “you know who the biggest bigots in the world are—they’re the ones who call others bigots.” He caviled, “Well, it’s a sad day in the country when you can’t talk about law and order unless they want to call you a racist.” According to Wallace’s logic, protesting racial pandering makes you the biggest bigot in the world—and, presumably, pulling a fire alarm means you set the fire, while dialing 911 means you committed the crime.
Dog whistle racism is both a form of race talk and a way to ensure silence about race. Among conservatives it facilitates a constant din of racial insinuation couched in references to culture and behavior, while insisting there’s no racism without an epithet or a direct mention of race. And among liberals it enforces a cowed silence, kicking up the racial conflict by accusing any critics of opportunistically infusing race into the conversation. Routed by these attacks, most progressives have stopped talking about race and racism, lest they be accused of being “the biggest bigots in the world.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Reprinted from Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López, with permission from Oxford University Press USA. © 2014 by Ian Haney López.