- Racism in American Politics
Ian Haney Lopez
Oxford University Press
303 Pages; Print, $24.95
The subject of racism in politics is not just a timely issue in US political culture, but one that recurs with depressing frequency in the era of Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and perpetual presidential campaigning. The calls for immigration reform after the Republican losses among Latino voters in 2012 have given way to the immigrant-bashing of Donald Trump and his rivals, the branding of Black Lives Matter protestors against police brutality as “domestic terrorists,” and, most recently, Ben Carson’s belief that a Muslim is unfit for the presidency; all are indications that racial and religious wedge appeals are not relics of the past. It is in this context that Ian Lopez writes Dog Whistle Politics, a historical and contemporary analysis of how racially coded appeals by politicians are used to inject racism into campaigns but at the same time are not so explicitly racist so that the user of such appeals can deny racism and even turn the racist accusations back on the accusers. While he offers a book on an important issue that poisons American politics, Lopez ultimately offers little that is new or original and does not present a comprehensive way to combat the problem.
The book’s title comes from what Lopez calls racial code appeals, the metaphorical “dog whistle” that is ostensibly nonracial but one that white voters automatically identify with nonwhite people, and, therefore, do not need to be directly told about to make the racial connection. Examples include law and order, food stamps, and other code phrases, going back to George Wallace and “states’ rights” during the 1960s. Lopez argues that the overt, explicit racism of the 1950s changed with the Civil Rights era, and Barry Goldwater and Wallace channeled this to white America through their appeals. In this way, racism is adaptive rather than declining as overt racism, or what Lopez calls “hate,” became publicly unpalatable, and instead, “commonsense racism” emerged, a form of unconscious racism that rejected the crass use of racial slurs and white supremacy. Lopez indicates that this kind of racism is the most insidious since the person holding such racial biases honestly rejects crude displays of racism while still accepting that things like “culture,” not institutional white supremacy, are responsible for holding back minorities. To be a racist is to be virulent, and racism is thus reduced to acts by individuals, and the larger white society has no blame in perpetuating white supremacy.
The politicians who make dog whistle appeals are mostly, but not always, Republicans. Lopez gives a brief history of racial appeals from Richard Nixon to the present, citing historians such as the biographer Dan Carter, who called Wallace’s appeals “soft porn racism.” Reagan took these appeals further and began what is mentioned in the book’s subtitle, the adoption and passage of policies to wreck the middle class. Dog whistle appeals get white voters to vote against their own interests, voting against New Deal and Great Society policies that benefit them because they become convinced, contrary to all evidence, that many of these programs are primarily benefiting nonworking, non-taxpaying minorities. Reagan’s union-busting, deregulation, and tax cuts, built on the votes of white Reagan Democrats, fed the mentality that government was the enemy of white Americans even as those same Americans benefited from entitlement programs that Reagan targeted. The result was a retreat from the New Deal and a return to Gilded Age polices of the nineteenth century. Democrats recognized the uses of dog whistling, especially after the defeat of Michael Dukakis using the Willie Horton ad in 1988, which led Bill Clinton to use his own coded appeals to continue, rather than reverse, the economic trends of the Reagan-Bush years. The events of September 11th breathed new life into dog whistle politics, as the entire religion of Islam became fertile ground for wedge politics, merging with concerns...