Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López (review)
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Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. By Ian Haney López. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014; pp. xx + 277. $24.95 cloth; $17.95 paper.

Following President Obama’s election, voices celebrating the end of racism and the dawn of a postracial nation sang in discordant tones with voices reminding the country of the everyday realities of racial oppression. With the second term of the Obama administration now at a close, the symbolic progress of his presidency continues to jostle uncomfortably against daily reminders of racial injustice. While President Obama both symbolizes and consistently narrates a story of forward progress and change, critical race theorist Derrick Bell’s claim regarding the “permanence of racism” continues to ring true. López is a contemporary of Barack Obama and a student of Professor Bell at Harvard Law School. He introduces Dog Whistle Politics by reflecting on his rejection of Professor Bell’s claim during a seminar on race and the law. In light of the end of slavery and Jim Crow and the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, how could Bell assert racism’s permanence? With this book, López corrects his misunderstanding of Bell’s claim: racism is “permanent” because “racial patterns adapt” or, more specifically, “strategic individuals adapt race” (xii). Dog Whistle Politics, López’s third book, tells the story of how politicians have strategically [End Page 180] manipulated racial meanings and symbols since the Civil Rights era in ways that sustain the permanence of racism.

López makes three primary contributions to the scholarship regarding political rhetoric and race: explaining the practice of dog whistle politics, conceptualizing strategic racism, and deepening the conversation about the intersections of race and economic class. Dog whistle politics describes the practice of “speaking in code to a target audience” through ostensibly neutral messages that often warn about or denigrate certain social groups and classes (4). López argues that dog whistle politics allows racism to persist despite a social climate in which citizens readily condemn any obvious form of racial acrimony such as epithets. The “complex jujitsu” of dog whistle racism represents a “new way of talking about race that constantly emphasizes racial divisions, heatedly denies that it does any such thing, and then presents itself as a target of self-serving charges of racism” (4–5). Examples of dog whistle appeals include references to “gangbangers,” “welfare queens,” “sharia law,” “illegal immigrants,” or the “food stamp president.” While López explores the concept through coded racial appeals, the concept equally applies to subliminal grievances about women, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, religion, and other politically marginalized groups.

López conceptualizes dog whistle politics as a form of “strategic racism.” This concept presents racism not as a blatant form of hate and injustice but as a discursive chameleon that can be plausibly denied even as it stirs racial animosity, warns of the threat of racial minorities, and reinforces constructed hierarchies of race. López suggests that this new racism does not arise from animus or a desire to hurt racial minorities. Instead, winning votes, gaining political power, and maintaining political dominance motivate strategic racism. This form of racism is a calculated strategy for political victory. Strategic racism adds an important concept to rhetorical studies of race and politics and invites further exploration of the strategic shifts in public discourse that maintain racial inequity.

López asserts that strategic racism and dog whistle politics not only harm racial minorities while benefitting whites but also damage the economic middle class as a whole. López links the nation’s growing wealth inequality, the weakening of social welfare programs, and the demonization of the government as a force for social mobility for the strategic and subtle racial appeals that permeate contemporary politics. Race represents the “dark [End Page 181] magic by which middle-class voters have been convinced to turn government over to the wildly affluent” (3). Broadening the stakes of studying the rhetoric of race, López alerts middle-class citizens, both white and non-white, of the salience of race to economic success...