Talking in codes

Ian Haney- López, a constitutional law scholar, discusses his new book, “Dog Whistle Politics,” at the University of Chicago in November 2014.

Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics

Ian Haney- López, a constitutional law scholar, discusses his new book, “Dog Whistle Politics,” at the University of Chicago in November 2014.

Shortly after the midterm elections, The Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago sponsored a discussion with Ian Haney-López, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading scholar of critical race theory. Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter, moderated a discussion with Haney-López about his new book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.” Following are excerpts from the discussion.

First, let me just ask you to talk about the premise of “Dog Whistle Politics.”

Sure, the notion of “Dog Whistle Politics” is that a lot of our political speech is being conducted in code. A dog whistle is something that, when you blow it, humans can’t hear it but dogs can. The metaphor is one in which, in political speech, on one level, some of these coded phrases are silent; and on the other, they’re producing strong racial reactions. So you think about terms like “illegal alien” or “inner city” or “welfare queen.” You can’t find race on the surface, but just below the surface, producing strong reactions.

Now, that’s not a novel claim and, indeed, dog whistle politics is not my phrase. It’s a kind of “inside the beltway” phrase. Most people who recognize that this sort of coded racial appeal is an essential part of our politics, fail to recognize two things that I think are crucial, and that’s the real contribution of my book. First, these coded racial appeals are not simply marginal or not the work of desperate politicians. So we can think about Newt Gingrich talking about [Barack] Obama as a food-stamp president. He was censured for this sort of race baiting but also presented as marginal and desperate. This is not just the actions of some folks who are marginal and desperate. This has been a concerted GOP strategy since 1963. And we see it no more effectively than in 2014, when the major themes of the Republican candidates were ISIS and Ebola, crossing the southern border, plus Obama’s incompetence. These are all racially charged allegations.

That’s our first mistake, to think it’s marginal. It’s not marginal. There’s a 50-year history here, and it’s central to the GOP.

Another way to see this is the GOP today draws 93, 94 percent of its support from whites, and that thought ought to give you serious pause. In a country that’s 65 percent white, how can that be that one of our two major political parties is essentially a party for whites? So that’s one claim. Here’s the other claim, and this one is more important. Race baiting … is harnessed to a particular ideological vision of government … that we ought to distrust government, because government coddles minorities through things like social welfare and public education. The theme is not just fear minorities but demonize government for coddling and refusing to control minorities. And the prescribed solution, you’ll recognize these: tax cuts, disinvestment in social services and getting government out of the way of business. These are the GOP talking points that have led to levels of wealth and inequality our country hasn’t seen since the Great Depression.

Tell us a little bit about the George Wallace story.

We think of George Wallace, now, primarily in terms of his inaugural speech in 1963, when he said, “Segregation now, segregation today, segregation forever.” And we think of him as sort of a reconstructed redneck. But that’s not who he was before, or indeed, after that sort of defining moment. He was somewhat of a racial martyr when he first ran for governor of Alabama in 1958. He was endorsed by the NAACP. As a sign of his moderation, he addressed blacks as “Mr.” as opposed to using their first names.

His opponent is endorsed by the Klan and he loses. Just before giving his concession speech, he’s reflecting on how he’s lost and he turns to some of his cronies and he says, “No other son of a bitch is going to out-nigger me again.” This is a strategic decision to deploy race. And indeed, when he runs again for re-election the second time in 1962, he’s the racial reactionary. That’s how he won the election, and that’s how he came in his inaugural address to proclaim himself an ardent supporter of segregation forever.

But, about a year later, because of the civil rights movement, all this explicit talk about race and politics was becoming unacceptable. It was becoming a mark of people who were backward and bigoted. Could Wallace figure out a way to talk about race without coming across as a redneck? And the language he shifted to was the language of “states’ rights.” … What happens then is a major epiphany for Wallace and a turning point for American politics. Wallace realizes whites across the entire country are anxious about integration and they’re looking for an alternative language to resist, to oppose integration. Everybody knows states’ rights mean the right of Southern states to resist integration. Dog whistle politics is not the introduction of race into American politics. It’s been there for 250 years. Rather, it’s a recasting of race in American politics in the form of coded language.

Part of the reason I start with Wallace is because I want to start with the Southern Democrat. Because I want to make the point that this is not a story about racism or bigotry. Certainly, this is not a story about racism on the part of Republicans. For most of the book, I focus on the fact that Republicans pick this up actually, simultaneously with Wallace, in the form of Barry Goldwater. But I want to make it very clear this is not a story of latent racism, latent bigotry among Republicans. This is a story of strategy.

This term you use in the book, “strategic racism,” is really key because [the idea is to] consciously choose to use racism for political gains.

A better way to think about this would be the “Southernization” of U.S. politics. That is, in the South, you always had to run on race. That’s what Wallace found out, that he couldn’t get elected, except by running on race. That was true in ’58. That was true in ’62. It became true nationally by, let’s say, 1972. Republicans started running on race nationally.

So, let’s tie this back to Goldwater. He is the one who pushes the idea within the Republican Party of “We can actually go in and pull white voters from the South.”

Goldwater was part of a fringe in the Republican Party able to sort of take control of the party in ’62, ’63, after a moderate Republican, Richard Nixon, had lost in 1960. They were able to say that we need to keep fighting against the New Deal. They also understood that the New Deal was really popular. So how were they going to win votes? That’s the moment at which the Republican Party, or a faction of it, decided they’re going to use race. So Barry Goldwater campaigns on the basis of states’ rights, sort of Wallace-like language. He loses big. It’s an enormous landslide against him because he’s running against Lyndon Johnson, [who] in 1964 is saying we can end poverty in our lifetime. We need to ramp up the New Deal programs, expand them into a war on poverty. And he absolutely crushes Goldwater.

In 1980, when Reagan comes in, he combines the cultural provocations of dog whistling with a demonization of government.

That is such a critical turning point. Lee Atwater, who worked on his campaign … says, “and cutting taxes is a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.”’

This is key because when Republicans talk about cutting taxes, it’s so hard to see race there. Where is race? And yet Atwater is making clear Republican strategists understand the connection between taxes and race. And the connection is this: liberal government wastes money on undeserving minorities … in the form of welfare, but also in the form of public education or mortgage relief.

In the book, you talk about strategic racism, common-sense racism, implicit bias and individual racism. Why are these definitions important?

Dog whistle politics is all about the stimulation of racial fear. And yet, we should be clear on those who are doing the stimulating—on the politicians, the conservative sort of strategists, the Fox News media folks. They’re not necessarily bigots; that’s the wrong imagery. I think we ought to call them strategic racists, and a strategic racist is someone who strategically, consciously, purposefully sets out to stoke racial anxiety in others for their own ends. What happens in minority communities is just collateral damage. What they care about is winning votes, demonizing government, cutting taxes for the very rich.

These narratives have a cultural purchase that motivates people to go to the polls and vote their fears, and their fears are racialized fears.