Breaking the Code The strategy of racial rhetoric in U.S. politics is now one of its foundations

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class

Ian Haney López (Oxford University Press, 2014) 277 pages with notes and index

Political parties are critical for democracy. To maintain a government equally responsive to the interests of every citizen—in the absence of magically enlightened, selfless leadership—it is necessary to negotiate collective consent and cooperation in the midst of diverse viewpoints and interests. This can be done only imperfectly, and parties are the only practical mechanism for doing it. The governing officials from a party must be capable of coordinating their own actions despite their differing views, while remaining accountable to the party’s voting constituency. Both coordination and accountability require the constant deployment of a rhetoric that defines the party’s common ideas, principles, values—its ideology—and maintains agreement among officials and voters about how the ideology connects with current political issues. So political rhetoric is critical for democracy.

If a party’s rhetoric accomplishes these tasks in a manner consistent with broader constitutional commitments, then it can fairly claim to govern democratically. Millions of people can identify and pursue common ideas of good policy and the good life, while sustaining legitimacy and order in a world where not everybody completely agrees. But if the rhetoric is systematically misleading about the party members’ interests, or if it leads the party to constitutionally destructive actions, then there is a problem.

In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López identifies such a problem in the rhetoric of modern American political parties. A U.C. Berkeley legal scholar who has written extensively on racism and the law, Haney López widens his view here to speak cogently to broader political implications. The title phrase, as he notes, generally refers to public speech that has special, sympathetic meaning to some targeted subset of the audience, while escaping the notice of everyone else. The dog whistling in this book, however, pertains narrowly to issues connected with race. In another sense, Haney López intends something a bit broader than the standard definition: many of the dog whistles he describes are obscure even to the target audience, and are coded so as to evoke racial stereotypes while allowing the hearer to avoid admitting racism—and allowing the speaker to deny invoking it. At several points Haney López applies the analysis to similar appeals against “illegal aliens” and “Muslim terrorists,” but such nativist and religious bigotry are recurrent minor themes in American history for which the modern rhetoric is just a footnote. The book’s main preoccupation by far is black-white relations in American politics.

The book’s long subtitle refers to what Haney López sees as the ultimate motivation for racial dog whistling: it is the rhetoric that holds together an electoral coalition consisting of working-class whites and the wealthy, a coalition whose goals include rolling back New Deal-type social programs in favor of a low-tax, low-regulation state. Dog-whistling maintains this coalition by linking these goals to racial sensitivities, despite general public rejection of old-fashioned racist rhetoric, and despite the overwhelming economic benefit, in Haney López’s view, to working class Americans from New Deal-type policies. He argues that such racial “dog whistle politics is not just a strategy, it’s now a formative element of American conservatism” (212).

Dog Whistle Politics alternates between chapters that recount the development of modern conservative rhetoric, and chapters that elucidate the main features of contemporary opinion on race to explain the effectiveness of the rhetorical strategies. The book maintains a fairly compelling narrative throughout this back-and-forth, and it is fairly easy for the reader to connect separated pieces of the argument. Although he draws extensively on existing work, Haney López contributes some useful new conceptual tools for the practical understanding of modern racial politics.

Racism, Haney López argues, is most often found in the form of unconscious or common-sense assumptions in the minds of well-intentioned people; it is maintained by a complex of social circumstance and political exploitation. These foundations have been well described in a fast-developing multidisciplinary literature, including recent works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (2006); Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists (2003); and before that, Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States (1986) and an extensive literature in political psychology such as Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card (2001). In establishing the formation of today’s racial rhetoric, Haney López combines these and many other such intellectual sources, generally with clear attribution (although Bonilla-Silva’s closely related exploration of “color-blind racism” goes curiously un-cited). Since the era of the civil rights movement, a conversational racial etiquette of “colorblindness” has emerged among whites, in which the mention of race is discouraged, the definition of racism is narrowed to consist only of race hatred, and any hint of attributing of racism constitutes an insult. Simultaneously, however, unquestioned and automatic assumptions linking race with socially dysfunctional behaviors have become commonplace, and have been actively promoted by conservative rhetorical themes. This tendency has been abetted by the conservative hijacking of a sociology literature on “ethnicity” linking under a single theoretical umbrella the assimilation or non-assimilation of European-American immigrant and African-American subcultures, which has been employed (beginning with the infamous Moynihan Report) to assign blame to African-Americans themselves for their unequal position in society. In public opinion, all this thinking reaches perhaps its zenith in the widespread perception of white victimhood through reverse discrimination and through the supposedly enormous welfare state soaking up through high taxes the earnings of hard-working Americans.

Since the era of the civil rights movement, a conversational racial etiquette of “colorblindness” has emerged among whites, in which the mention of race is discouraged, the definition of racism is narrowed to consist only of race hatred, and any hint of attributing of racism constitutes an insult. Simultaneously, however, unquestioned and automatic assumptions linking race with socially dysfunctional behaviors has become commonplace.

Beginning, ironically, in the triumphal year of the Civil Rights Act, politicians on the right noticed the development of such new attitudes: overt racial animus falling into disfavor, accompanied by widespread distrust of government attempts to remediate racial inequality. Haney López constructs the history of “strategic racism,” whereby politicians, regardless of their own personal attitudes about race, have exploited (on the right) or accommodated (on the left) these attitudes. The result has been to exacerbate those racial stereotypes and fears, and to distort (in Haney López’s view) public discourse and public policy; Haney López assigns some blame for this distortion to liberal accommodators as well as to conservative dog whistlers.

Here again, in tracing the development of our present racial rhetoric, Haney López efficiently constructs the big picture by drawing on excellent sources, such as Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage (1995) on the George Wallace phenomenon, and the first two volumes of Rick Perlstein’s popular-culture analysis of the modern conservative movement (Before the Storm, 2001 and Nixonland, 2008). The story begins in 1964, with Barry Goldwater’s discovery that Southern opposition to active civil rights policy appeared to outweigh prior support for New Deal liberalism, even among the New Deal’s white beneficiaries. Although Goldwater lost every other state except Arizona, his limited-government platform produced Republican presidential victories across the five states of the Deep South for the first time ever (aside from Ike’s 1956 win in Louisiana). Also in 1964, Wallace first took his race-based appeal north, learning to activate white racial fears and jealousies by substituting criticism of active government and a tough-on-crime stance for his previous direct racial language. Richard Nixon devised the Southern strategy partly in response and partly in realization of new opportunities; and Reagan stoked popular enthusiasm for small government with his anecdotes about welfare queens and “some young fellow” in the grocery cashier line buying steak with food stamps. Famously, Reagan’s original telling of the latter chestnut involved a “strapping young buck,” necessitating a careful recalibration of the dog whistle as it “shifted dangerously toward the fully audible range” (59) and threatened the I’m-not-a-racist self-image of future Reagan voters. By the time campaign media maestro Lee Atwater produced the Willie Horton advertisements in 1988 for George H.W. Bush, he was working with tools engineered to high precision.

If these changing political underpinnings of racial inequality were the entire business of Dog Whistle Politics, it would be a useful synthetic survey, combining elements of a fast-developing literature into a valuable unified account. However, Haney López also introduces at least two significant contributions to the understanding of racism and rhetoric in American politics, which lie at the core of the book. The first is his insistence on a clear distinction between “implicit bias,” primarily treated as a psychological phenomenon, and what he calls “commonsense racism,” which is very much a social phenomenon. The notion closely matches Gramsci’s concept of “common sense” as developed in the Prison Notebooks; it has been applied to racism by various writers in recent decades, but Haney López’s treatment is far more practical and concrete than any others I have been able to locate. In particular, he uses it powerfully to clarify the connection between individual attitudes and so-called structural or institutional racism, and thereby effectively expresses the flaw in the modern misconception of racism as simple individual malice.

Thanks to casual associations derived from observations of our social environment and from the folk explanations we develop and exchange, and thanks to the political messages with which we are bombarded, people—not only whites but often nonwhites—develop stereotypical associations linking race and behavior. Such associations, such as that the African-American community is dysfunctional or is unavoidably prone to criminality, become deeply ingrained and, for most people, seldom challenged. These notions,


“ … work like commonsense: as an “obvious” truth that, while rooted in social structures and cultural beliefs, is nevertheless accepted simply as reality. Many of those who “hear” racial appeals likely draw on this sort of commonsense racism. … [R]acial dog whistles resonate because, at the level of the taken-for-granted, they see the world in ways deeply colored by a foundational belief in the legitimacy of racial inequality.” (36)


This is, Haney López believes, partially due to cognitive phenomena; but while “we are ‘hardwired’ to unconsciously assign meaning to perceived differences … it’s false [to claim] that we’re automatically programmed to think in terms of race” (44). Rather, racism is social, in that it is maintained by social learning; cultural, in that it forms and draws on deeply shared beliefs and symbols, beginning with race itself; and political, in that it powers the invention of new social structures using the state’s facility for collective action and coercion to use racism to the advantage of particular interests and ambitions, incidentally creating interests in perpetuating racism.

To motivate the importance of this distinction between a cognitive and a social-cultural-political conception of racism, Haney López recalls the history of convict leasing in the post-Reconstruction South, again drawing adroitly on secondary sources including historian Matthew Mancini’s One Dies, Get Another (1996) and journalist Douglas A. Blackmon’s recent Slavery by Another Name (2008). Central, but implicit, in both those works as well as in Dog Whistle Politics is the theme that institutional racism emerges by specific design, with cultural assumptions playing a supportive role. Convict leasing was,


“built up relatively quickly, in just a few years. Spite alone didn’t do that. Hate didn’t create new structures and rationales for the exploitation of black labor. [They were] not the product of anyone’s id. Unconscious minds did not elaborate new criminal laws. … Nor was convict leasing a mere continuation of past structures … This was not inertia, but purposeful effort.” (46)


The same, he urges, can be said of our general pattern of racial inequality. Commonsense racism makes this process possible, but the process is not a psychological or even a cultural inevitability; it can be short-circuited through countervailing social and political action. Racial inequality is, in important instances, a real and avoidable effect of policies chosen by political officials at the behest of relatively narrow interests, using the political leverage of destructive racial attitudes.

The second major contribution of Dog Whistle Politics lies in its clear articulation of several conservative rhetorical devices related to race. A major example revolves around the accusation of “playing the race card,” frequently made when a liberal—notably and repeatedly, President Obama—mentions the relevance of racial inequality to some social problem or event. Its effectiveness derives from several elements of modern commonsense racism and race rhetoric: unthinking racial associations; but also the definition of racism as simple malice; the notion that race is a politically irrelevant personal trait; and the notion that, in a proper nonracial democracy, race should never be mentioned. The “race card” trope reaches its most elaborate realization in a maneuver Haney López calls the “punch, parry, kick” exchange. This by now familiar routine begins when a dog-whistling commentator invokes some implicit negative association with blackness without explicitly mentioning race: the “punch.” If a liberal opponent calls out the racial stereotype, the commentator then responds with a disingenuous “parry” by saying that he or she was not referring to race at all. This is often followed closely by the “kick,” accusing the liberal objector of playing the race card and of unfairly implying that the commentator is a racist. The controversy over the 1988 Willie Horton campaign commercial followed essentially this script, for example. “Punch, parry, kick” is rhetoric on steroids, a sort of meta-rhetoric: it elicits a reply, giving the occasion for a retort, and each step is attractive to the target audience. Best of all, the trap can be sprung over and over. Accusing an opponent of accusing racism is an effective device on its own; Haney López gives the example of an anti-health care reform commercial, in which various sympathetic white middle-class characters stated their worries about the proposed ACA, and, looking deeply hurt, concluded “I guess I’m a racist”; meanwhile a narrator recalls allegations by some prominent liberals that some of the opposition to ACA likely derives from racism. To many Americans, it is just common sense that the way to avoid racial discrimination is to avoid all explicit reference to race in public policy discussion; they see this as the very definition of not being a racist.

Dog Whistle Politics is a polemic not destined, and not designed, to convince conservatives, or probably even moderates. But Haney López believes that liberals, too, are susceptible to counterproductive ideas about racial politics in modern America, and their education is his real goal. He examines several examples of how Democrats’ and liberals’ attempts to alleviate the white sensitivities evoked by conservative dog-whistling has only lent durability to their claims and their effects. After recounting the well known campaign statements by first-time candidates Jimmy Carter (on “ethnic purity of neighborhoods”) and Bill Clinton (on Sister Souljah), Haney López devotes particular attention to what he sees as Barack Obama’s partial accommodation of “post-racial” politics. Obama, he understands, hopes to appeal to pivotal supporters of mildly liberal policies by appealing to “race-neutral” solutions and, importantly, by minimizing his and other Democratic officials’ explicit talk of race. In doing so, Haney López believes, Obama pursues illusory gains at the price of further cementing acceptance of dog whistle themes.

Some of the willingness of Democratic politicians to “moderate” their racial policies and attempt to mollify their racially suspicious constituents stems, Haney López believes, from misdirected analyses by well-intended liberal intellectuals who themselves have, in effect, been taken in by the social misconceptions on which dog whistling relies. He notes the conclusions drawn by Thomas and Mary Edsall in their 1992 book Chain Reaction about white backlash from the dramatic policy changes of the 1960s. The Edsalls portrayed such backlash as an inevitable and understandable result of sudden change, and many liberal politicians drew the conclusion that moderation was necessary in order to save some fraction of the original goals. Neither the Edsalls nor their readers, says Haney López, took into account that the chain reaction was not mere backlash, but rather was the purpose and goal of an ongoing conservative campaign of continued racial divisiveness by means of the dog whistle.

Particularly interesting is Haney López’s criticism of Thomas Frank’s diagnosis, in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), that culture-war distraction, rather than race, is the device used to fool Kansans into voting contrarily to their economic interests. Frank ridiculed the argument that racism was to blame; Haney López quotes Frank’s remark that “Kansas cannot easily be dismissed as a nest of bigots… Kansas is not Alabama in the sixties,” pointing out in rebuke that “even Alabama isn’t Alabama in the 1960s”. Frank’s mistake, says Haney López, is to look for racism-as-malice, when the real reason for Kansans’ economic conservatism is their commonsense racial assumptions amplified by relentless dog-whistle insinuation.

By way of saying what liberals should do about all this, Haney López urges Democratic politicians to “Articulate…a positive vision” and “Give a consistent and coherent account of who the real culprits are”, namely the very rich. He urges civil rights organizations to focus on the nature of modern racial inequality. He says that liberals need to build institutions to challenge the right’s growing intellectual infrastructure in think tanks and universities. All this aims toward the ultimate policy goal of “restor[ing] an interrupted future” by re-establishing the “dominant political consensus … of the New Deal.”

There are two problems with this prescription. First, it is not clear that a rhetorical war of attrition against dog whistling will be any more successful for liberals than the present effort to compromise on race-neutral alleviation of inequality. At least Haney López has made a valuable contribution by so clearly articulating what the dog whistle rhetoric consists of. His analysis seems more incisive than previous efforts once thought to have practical diagnostic promise, notably the work of linguist George Lakoff (Moral Politics, 1996 and Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2004) focusing on the “metaphors we live by” that drive American ideologies. Second, contrary to Haney López’s assertion—but as shown by his own analysis of the Goldwater campaign—there does not appear ever to have been a “dominant political consensus” around the combination of New Deal welfare state policies and racial fairness. The New Deal depended on Southern support, which in turn depended on its exclusion of so many African-Americans from so many of its benefits. At exactly the moment when the Democratic party took on the responsibility of civil rights, they lost their majority for the welfare state. To be effective, Haney López’s political advice would have to create, rather than merely restore, a civil rights-New Deal consensus.