Many Americans believe the election of our first black president signaled the entry into a post-racial America from which racial prejudices of the past have been eliminated. Author Ian Haney López convincingly challenges this notion in his latest book Dog Whistle Politics. Far from being over, he argues racism continues to permeate key aspects of American political life without overt racist references. Instead, race neutral references about criminals and welfare cheats, illegal aliens, and sharia law are repeatedly made. “Superficially,” he says, “these provocations have nothing to do with race, yet they nevertheless powerfully communicate messages about threatening nonwhites.” Americans must recognize these “dog whistles” for what they really are, code word appeals to racial biases and prejudices. Haney López provides plenty of examples to facilitate such recognition.
Campaigning for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan told stories of Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. In trumpeting these tales of welfare run amok, Reagan never needed to mention race because he was blowing a dog whistle: sending a message about racial minorities inaudible on one level, but clearly heard on another. In doing so, he tapped into a long political tradition that started with George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and is more relevant than ever in the age of the Tea Party and the first black president.
The most recent examples of dog whistle politics can be found in race neutral characterizations of President Obama as “the food stamp president,” “the affirmative action president,” or as a follower of Islam. While race is never specifically mentioned in any of these cases, the subtle reminder that the president is not white is never far from the political conversations.
From Reagan to Romney, Haney López offers a sweeping account of how politicians and plutocrats deploy veiled racial appeals to persuade white voters to support policies that favor the extremely rich yet threaten their own interests. Dog whistle appeals generate middle-class enthusiasm for political candidates who promise to crack down on crime, curb undocumented immigration, and protect the heartland against Islamic infiltration, but ultimately vote to slash taxes for the rich, give corporations regulatory control over industry and financial markets, and aggressively curtail social services. White voters, convinced by powerful interests that minorities are their true enemies, fail to see the connection between the political agendas they support and the surging wealth inequality that takes an increasing toll on their lives. The tactic continues at full force with the Republican Party using racial provocations to drum up enthusiasm for weakening unions and public pensions, defunding public schools, and opposing health care reform.
Rejecting any simple story of malevolent racism, Haney López links as never before the two central themes that dominate American politics today: the decline of the middle class, and race as a source of loyalty to the Republican Party. Dog Whistle Politics will generate a lively and badly needed debate about race as a fundamental driver of economic inequality that imperils the middle class, white and non-white alike. This FDL Book Salon provides a unique opportunity for you to enter this debate.
Ian Haney López is the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Senior Fellow at Demos. He is the author of two previous books, White By Law and Racism On Trial.
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