Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class By Ian Haney Lopez


Review by Marilyn Howard


Election night 2008 was a heady mixture of triumph, hope, disbelief and pride. A black man had been elected to the presidency of the United States of America! (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to be honest and admit I never thought I would live to see the day.) Who can forget the sight of Oprah Winfrey laying her head on the shoulders of a total stranger, or the tears being shed by the old civil rights warrior Jesse Jackson? That the eve of his first inauguration fell on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day merely added to the belief that many Americans thought we had finally banished that old bugaboo, racism, and stepped into a post-racial America. They were as wrong as two left shoes. America has never been in a post-racial society; racism had merely been swept under the carpet.

The Obama family had barely settled into the White House when the racist jokes, cartoons, comparisons to primates and disparaging names started flying. Leading into the campaign of 2012 and after Obama’s re-election, it only got worse, and there is no end in sight: several weeks ago I read a story about Barack Obama urinal cakes. Even Richard Nixon at the height of his chicanery wasn’t treated with so much disrespect. Yet when this behavior is tagged as racist, the perpetrators feign innocence and express shock, shock I say, that someone would think they are racist, and Obama’s supporters and black people in general are accused of playing the race card and fanning racial discord. In fact there are surveys that show that racism is on the rise because Obama keeps talking about it!

Nowhere is this neo-racism more apparent than in electoral politics. In Black Votes Count, published in 1990, the late civil rights lawyer Frank Parker called this type of activity “rhetorical winks”; Lopez refers to it as dog whistle politics. Both men are describing the coded language that is employed by politicians to get middle class voters, especially white ones, focused on race and voting against their economic interests, electing politicians who, by kowtowing to the agenda of corporate America, have decimated the middle class and shredded the fabric of democracy in this country.

How does dog whistle politics work? Lopez says “racial pandering operates on two levels: inaudible and easily denied in one range, yet stimulating strong reactions in another.” According to Lopez, dog whistle politics paints undeserving minorities as the enemy of the middle class, and has all but killed the progressive programs begun during the New Deal, especially those that assist the least of us and bolster the middle class.

While Democrats cashed in on the phenomenon first–think of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948 or George Wallace in 1963–it is Republicans who have raised dog whistle politics to a high art. Early in the narrative, he reviews the history of that Great Triumvirate of dog whistling, middle twentieth century politicians: George Wallace, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. All three men became highly skilled at using coded language to frighten white voters, thus laying the groundwork for the current generation of wink wink, nudge nudge racism. States rights, small government, law and order–it was all the same thing: because undeserving minorities are getting ahead, white people are not. And for a country that had been through the wrenching changes wrought by the civil rights movement, their words were like manna from heaven.

Complicating matters is America’s downright refusal to recognize racism. To a great swath of American society, racism means the absence of civil rights and the terrorism visited upon blacks in the first half of the twentieth century; it wears a white sheet and burns crosses. To these people the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the election and re-election of the first African American president means that we as a nation have overcome. This stubborn refusal to see and admit that race is still a big problem in this country is what has allowed millions of American to be so easily manipulated by politicians.

While not for the casual reader, Dog Whistle Politics is important and fascinating reading. One of the most significant chapters is about how Barack Obama has handled race, especially since he became president. Spoiler alert: Lopez is generally critical of the President’s failure to use the bully pulpit to move the country further along on the subject. He also lambastes the left for unthinkingly embracing color blindness and post-racialism. Furthermore, while many people praised Obama’s speech on racism made during the presidential campaign of 2008, Lopez has an entirely different interpretation which may make many people reconsider their enthusiasm for it.

Lopez states that he wants Dog Whistle Politics to be read by all middle class Americans, regardless of their race. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the people who most need to read the book will, if for no other reason than that most of them fail to hear the dog whistle at all.