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Ian Haney López Shows How Republicans Use Racially Coded Language to Win Votes

First Posted: Mar 13, 2014 10:18 AM EDT
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Dog Whistle Politics

Photo : Facebook / Ian Haney López on Dog Whistle Politics at the Strand

The Republican Party is not well known for its favoritism of minorities. In fact, the exact opposite can be said to be true... many right-wing political policies seem almost specifically aimed at antagonizing certain minority groups. Everything from the party's strong stance against immigration reform, to the labeling of President Obama as a Muslim and a socialist, to even the excessive demonization of hip hop, has lead many to believe the GOP is a racist party. However, is this racial demagoguery rooted in bigotry, or is it purely political?

Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, believes that there is a very clear political agenda behind racism in politics. He argues that most Republicans are not motivated by a desire to express hatred towards minorities, but rather a desire to appeal to white, racist voters. He dubs this, "strategic racism."

"Dog whistle politics doesn't come out of animus at all, it doesn't come out of some desire to hurt minorities. It comes out of a desire to win votes," says López in an interview with Bill Moyers. "And in that sense I want to start using the term 'strategic racism'. It's racism as a strategy, its cold, its calculating, its considered. It's the decision to achieve one's own ends (here winning votes) by stirring racial animosity."

The term "dog whistle politics" refers to the use of coded racial language that appears innocent on the surface, but is actually meant to send a clear message towards white, middle class voters. One such example is the concept of the "welfare queen." Namely lazy, unemployed African-American women (or men) who would rather get a free check from the government than go out and get a job. It preys on a racial stereotype of blacks as freeloaders, expecting free "entitlements" without putting any of the work in.

López explains how Ronald Reagan, grand hero of the GOP, used dog whistle politics to great effect. "[Ronald Regan] would speak to his audience and he would say 'Understand how frustrating it is for you when you're stuck in line waiting to buy a hamburger, and there's some young fellow ahead of you buying a t-bone steak with foot stamps.'"

While Reagan never explicitly mentioned blacks in his rhetoric, López points how the young fellow (or "young buck" as Reagan would also refer to him) was clearly meant to be a stand in for African Americans. Never mind that this conception of "welfare queens" enjoying "t-bone steak" is a complete and utter myth (this chart illustrates just how luxurious the life of a so-called welfare queen can be). In terms of the belief that welfare is primarily abused by blacks, statistics show that the number of white and black welfare recipients is roughly the same, and given that the fact that close to 30 percent of the black population lives in poverty, the number makes even more sense.

Even so, Republicans convinced many whites that the government was taking advantage of them by taking their taxpayer's dollars, and giving it back to undeserving minorities. We see the same sentiment expressed today when Republicans talk of "redistribution of wealth." As López notes, Reagan used this racially fueled animosity to gain support for tax cuts -- tax cuts that resulted in over a trillion dollars being funneled to the richest 1 percent of the country.

This method of "strategic racism" began way before the Reagan era. Referred to as the "Southern strategy", Republicans used it during the Civil Rights era to lure racist whites from the South who abandoned the Democratic Party for its support of black rights.

An op-ed from the New York Times quotes a 1981 interview in which Republican strategist Lee Atwater openly confessed the party's strategy.

''You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.' By 1968 you can't say 'n*gger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

He continues, ''And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'N*gger, n*gger.'''

While black and white racial tension played a key role in the "Southern strategy", dog whistle politics has since expanded to other minorities. A major focus of today's racial politics: Latinos.

Statistics show that Latinos are the fastest growing minority in the country and figure to be a major factor in future election. Still the GOP continues to alienate Latinos with his hesitancy to implement any sort of immigration reform. As reported by this article in The New York Times last year, House Republican Speaker John Boehner was quoted as saying "he has no intention of angering conservative voters and jeopardizing the House Republican majority in 2014 in the interest of courting Hispanic voters on behalf of a 2016 Republican presidential nominee who does not yet exist."

The message is clear: a vote against immigration reform is a vote against Latinos. Anti-immigration is coded language for anti-Latino.

Republicans attempt to capitalize on the rampant xenophobia in Southwestern states by advocating for extreme anti-immigration laws, and using plenty of anti-immigration rhetoric. In the 2012 Republican Presidential Race, Herman Cain attempted to garner votes by proposing the construction of electric fence on the Mexican border. Rick Perry, on the other hand, loss votes when it was revealed that he had signed the Texas Dream Act, which provided tuition for undocumented immigrants at state colleges.

López sees dog whistle politics as a problem that is not going away, but is merely "evolving" to target other minorities.

"Dog whistling is going to evolve," says López. "And if it has to evolve in a way that brings in certain portions of the Latino population, certain portions of the Asian population, that's what it's likely to do. Unless we start addressing this within minority communities, but also in terms of national politics, we should expect these sorts of racial provocations to continue to define our politics for the next decade, two decades, three decades.

Despite this, he maintains that the racist communities that these politicians seek to manipulate are not bad people.

"Most racists are good people," he says. "They're not sick. They're not ruled by anger or raw emotion or hatred. They are complicated people reared in complicated societies. They're fully capable of generosity, of empathy, of real kindness. But because of the idea systems in which they're reared, they're also capable of dehumanizing others and occasionally of brutal violence. And that's an important truth. Most people are not racists out of some sort of a sickness of the soul. They're racist because of the society in which they operate."

By using coded racism, politicians continue to feed into irrational racial fears based on stereotypes. This political strategy is detrimental to American society, a society that is far from "color blind" or "post-racial" as many claim. However, with the rise of minority voters, as well as white voters understated by racial politics, we may see politicians abandoning these racial scare tactics.

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