Author Ian Haney López decodes dog whistle racism

Blow into a dog whistle, and most people won’t hear a thing. But dogs do. And they come running. That’s how strategic, coded racism works, writes law professor Ian Haney López, in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.

When Haney López, who will be lecturing at History Colorado tonight, talks about dog whistle politics, he’s referring to the racist messages politicians use – without mentioning race – to distract middle class people from political projects he believes are destroying their lives and building power and wealth for a few.

“They are part of an effort to convince voters that the biggest threat in their lives comes from the relatively marginal and disempowered poor minorities and women seeking abortion rather than from the largest corporations and the richest individuals,” Haney López told The Colorado Independent.

He’s talking about words like “illegal alien” and “welfare cheat.”

“All these phrases on the surface have nothing to do with race, and yet just underneath, they’re trading very strongly on racial imagery,” Haney López said.

In his book, Haney López starts in 1958 when George Wallace decided he lost his first election for governor of Alabama because he ran as a racial moderate. After conceding defeat, he told his supporters, “Well, boys, no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again,” and with that, he launched his political career as a strategic racist, which proved to be a winning approach for a few years.

But as pressures mounted against segregation, Wallace began to code his message. Instead of talking about “niggers,” he started talking about states’ rights and the arrogance of the federal government. One biographer described Wallace’s new messaging as “soft-porn racism.” Barry Goldwater and then Richard Nixon learned to craft their own strategic racist messaging from Wallace. Ronald Reagan perfected the art, Haney López argues.

Dog whistling is not just a Republican endeavor, Haney López says. Both parties have used it to thrust the agenda of the super rich onto the public. Bill Clinton used the strategy boasting about his tough-on-crime position and beefing up the war on drugs.

President Obama, who has talked about race less than any other President in the last 50 years, has contributed his own brand of dog whistle racism in his immigration strategy. He has ramped up the deportation and imprisonment of undocumented people more than any other president, Haney López argues.

Pointing out coded racism can be hard, particularly when the people using the strategy have found ways to fight off critics. Haney López calls these strategic racist tactics “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,” he writes.

So, what can people do about all this coded racist speech? Haney López asks. Name it.

“The only way you defeat it is by standing up to it, calling it out for what it is while articulating a new vision of what brings us all together and who is really threatening our lives.”

Discuss these ideas with Haney López tonight, at 6. p.m., at History Colorado, 1200 Broadway, Denver. His free presentation, “Race Whisperer: Decoding the Silent Politics of Race in America,” will be anchored in Colorado history by a panel featuring Dr. Winston Grady Willis of Metro State University and Shadana Sultan of the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce.

If you can’t make it tonight, you can follow Haney López on Facebook or at his website.