Election 2016: The Ultimate Dog Whistle

A dog whistle silently signals to its target audience that the speaker will work to prevent “those people” from interfering with your life without mentioning “those people” by race, color, or creed. In the context of Ian Haney López’s book, Dog Whistle Politics — How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class, dog whistling politicians tell white people that if elected, they’ll ensure that black and brown people no longer leach off of their hard earn tax dollars, threaten the safety of their community with their violent tendencies, or steal jobs from them by coming into the country illegally. The author states that conservative politicians have used dog whistles as a means to promote their radical conservative agendas, to cut taxes, and scrap social safety net programs like welfare and Medicaid. He presents a great deal of history to back his assertions, from George “segregation forever” Wallace and Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Haney López recalls how Ronald Reagan invoked the Welfare Queen during his campaign for president. I remember this caricature very well. She lives in Chicago. She drives a Cadillac. She goes to the bank to cash multiple welfare checks derived from “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards” that allowed her to “[collect] veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” She does not work, because she does not have to. “Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000,” Haney López quotes. Reagan did not need to give a graphic description of what she looked like. That is, he did not have to mention her race. Everyone knew: she was African American. “Chicago” and “Cadillac” triggered the image.

The black Welfare Queen belongs to a long history of African American caricatures. It is a descendant of the laughing mammy and the black jezebel who shamelessly stole other women’s men.

Haney López also notes that Reagan used another dog whistle, one I do not recall: that of the “young fellow” who used his food stamps to buy T-bone steaks, while his target audience (fellow white people) “were waiting in line to buy hamburger.” Reagan apparently first used the expression “strapping young buck” rather than “young fellow,” but that crossed the line. A young buck, of course, invokes the image of a dangerous, well muscled black man who never works, but leers lecherously at white women. By using “buck,” Haney López writes that “[Reagan’s] whistle shifted dangerously toward the fully audible range.”

Less one think that Democrats get off easy, they don’t. Early in the book, Haney López states that Democrats have also used and benefited from dog whistle politics. Jimmy Carter, in his 1976 presidential race, made awkward statements against integrating neighborhoods, claiming that folks of different groups, black and white, had a right to maintain the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods. A clear pander, Haney López writes, to Wallace voters, whom Carter needed in order to win. And Carter won in ’76 with 48% of the white vote.

In my opinion, Bill Clinton’s “pandering to dog whistle sensibilities” was more damaging. To prove that he wasn’t soft on crime, he spearheaded the federal Three Strikes law, pumped billions into Reagan’s “war on crime” programs, and increased the number of offenses listed as capital crimes that could result in the death penalty. He also capitulated on welfare reform, gutting Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other programs. All of these measures disproportionally affected African Americans.

One Clinton dog whistle that I’ve written about many times is the stupid, and now mostly dead, Defense of Marriage Act, a salve to prove that he wasn’t too nice to gay people.

As I read the book, I wondered how the current presidential election looked through the lens of dog whistle politics. On the one hand, this election is almost post-dog whistle. And on the other, it is the ultimate dog whistle.

Enter Donald Trump.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people…But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting… They’re sending us not the right people.”
– Trump announcing his candidacy, June 16, 2015 (via C-SPAN)

Remember how Ronald Reagan backed off the “strapping young buck” phrase during his campaign because the dog whistle became too audible? Well, Trump doesn’t seem to have that problem. By and large, he has traded dog whistles for bullhorns. He mocks Mexicans. He mocks women. He mocks Muslims, including Muslim Americans. He patronizes and mocks African Americans. And some of the electorate have lapped it up.

At the same time, Trump knows how to blow the dog whistle. His very slogan, “Make American Great Again,” is the perfect coded language, straight out of Orwell. What does it mean? When had America stop being great? The dog whistle answer I hear says “when it got a black man in the White House.” Given Trump’s birther past (and present?) I have no doubt that many of his supporters hear the same dog whistle.

In a way, support for Trump’s political career — 1 year-old as of this month — is a big, fat dog whistle. The Republican leadership has begrudgingly decided to follow him, despite his obvious lack of qualifications for any elected office, much less the presidency. That they do so, however tepidly, speaks to me of their cowardice and racism. They would rather support a loudmouth bigot with no qualifications than support a highly educated and thoughtful person with proven ability to lead simply because the former is white and the latter is black. Republicans have doggedly resisted working with Barack Obama during his entire presidency. They voted against many of his proposals, even those with Republican origins like parts of the American Care Act (aka Romney Care 2.0), simple out of spite. Yet and still, they will support someone who has no business running for president. That’s one hell of a dog whistle.

Democrats, including Barack Obama, have, according to Haney López, largely tried to stem the tide of increasing attacks against from the right by championing “post-racialism.” That is, deal with issues that affect all Americans universally, such as healthcare, and thus raise all boats. The limits of this approach are obvious. During the Obama presidency, the country has witnessed an alarming rise in police violence against unarmed African Americans as well as a rise in the number of white supremacists groups.

Haney López writes:

Post-racialism justifies walking away from direct responses to racial inequality by promising universal approaches, and in doing so, it not only betrays minorities but dupes the middle class more generally.

Bernie Sanders has had a challenge gaining large support from African American and Latino voters. This is likely because he started out as almost a single-issue candidate, focussing on economic inequality. Most of his stump speeches mirrored the sort of post-racial shortsightedness Haney López warns against. Over time, he has changed his rhetoric and has been addressing issues of racial inequality as problems that require special addressing. A step in the right direction that the Democratic Party as a whole would be wise to follow.

The only way to really combat racism is to address it head on, in unvarnished language, to show how racist policies and sentiments affect large groups of people, and to not apologize for being liberal or progressive. Conservatives have enjoyed victory after victory because they have given liberalism a bad name and then they have tied liberalism to race. Thus, race and liberalism have become political third rails. Pretending that the problem doesn’t exist is not the answer. The problem must be attacked head on.

From Dog Whistle Politics‘ final chapter:

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.

Trump’s brand of in-your-face racism is impossible to ignore and easy to call out. Hillary Clinton did an excellent job of this recently. Ultimately, however, the followthrough could remain elusive if Democrats do not make good on promises to address the racism behind the dog whistles.

© 2016, gar. All rights reserved.

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