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Dog Whistle Politics: How Politicians Use Coded Racism to Push Through Policies Hurting All

StoryJanuary 14, 2014
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Two months after 47 million food stamp recipients were hit with $5 billion in cuts, more are on the way as lawmakers finalize a new farm bill. The measure is likely to slash another $9 billion in food stamps over the next decade, depriving more than 800,000 households of up to $90 in aid per month. We look at how politicians have used coded racial appeals to win support for cuts like these and similar efforts since the 1960s with Ian Haney López, author of the new book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class.” A senior fellow at Demos and law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, López argues that “this is about race as it wrecks the whole middle class. This sort of racism is being used to fool a lot of whites into voting for Republicans whose main allegiance is to corporate interests.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: The 47 million people who rely on food stamps in the U.S. are facing their second threat in less than three months. In what critics dubbed the “hunger cliff,” automatic budget cuts meant the loss of $5 billion from the federal nutrition program in November—that’s $36 per month for a family of four. Now more cuts are on the way as lawmakers finalize a new farm bill that stalled in Congress last year. It’s widely reported the plan will cut another $9 billion from food stamps over the next decade, depriving more than 800,000 households of up to $90 in aid per month. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, food stamps now average less than $1.40 per person, per meal this year. The new proposal represents a compromise between a Republican plan to cut food stamps by $39 billion and a Democratic plan to cut them by $4 billion. The new cuts would follow another major blow to those relying on government assistance: the congressional failure to extend the unemployment benefits that expired last month.

AMY GOODMAN: Cuts to social programs are old hat in U.S. politics. We’re joined now by an author whose new book explores one of the key ways that’s come to be known. The book is called Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class. Law Professor Ian Haney López explores how politicians have long used veiled racism to lure white voters into supporting politics that favor the wealthy and hurt the poor and middle class across ethnic lines.

Professor López traces this trajectory from the Southern Strategy that emerged in the ’60s through the Reagan-led attacks on welfare in the ’80s, continued under President Clinton a decade later. And he explores how dog whistle politics remain today, from the denigration of Muslims and Latino immigrants to bolster the national security state to the use of old stereotypes to preserve long-standing attacks on social welfare.

Ian Haney López is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the area of racial justice in the U.S. legal system. He also may be the only person who lays claim to being a classmate of President Obama on two separate occasions—in high school in Hawaii and years later as law students at Harvard Law School.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the title, Dog Whistle Politics.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: “Dog whistle politics,” I think, is a term that’s out there in the conversation, but I don’t think the meaning has really gelled. It says, look, politics now is occurring in coded terms, like a dog whistle. On one level, we hear clearly there’s a sense of racial agitation; on another level, plausible deniability—people can insist nothing about race at all. And so, classic examples: Reagan and welfare queens, or Newt Gingrich saying Obama is a “food stamp president.” Now, on one level, that’s triggering racial sentiment, triggering racial anxiety. On another, of course, Newt Gingrich can turn around and say, “I didn’t mention race. I just said food stamps.” In fact, he can go further and say, “It’s a fact,” as if there isn’t a sort of a racial undertone there.

AMY GOODMAN: During the 2012 Republican primary, Newt Gingrich was widely accused of employing the so-called Southern Strategy to appeal to the prejudice of white voters in the South. At the Republican debate, Fox News moderator Juan Williams questioned Newt Gingrich about his description of President Obama as the “food stamp president.” This was Gingrich’s response.

NEWT GINGRICH: The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Newt Gingrich.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Right. And I think—so, what’s important—so, people have a sense that this sort of politics is out there, but they also think it’s marginal, maybe vestigial, a throwback to sort of old Southern race baiting from 50 years ago. And the point of this book is to say this isn’t vestigial, this is central to Republican politics today, and this is—excuse me—this is how conservatives are wrecking the middle class.

They’re using these sort of coded appeals to say to people two things: One, the biggest threat in your life is not concentrated wealth, it’s minorities; and two, government coddles minorities, and all these government assistance programs, it’s all about giveaways to minorities—oppose them—government is taking your taxes and giving it to undeserving minorities. So when we think about why it is that so many people would—in the midst of an economic crisis, would vote to slash taxes for the rich, to favor deregulation and to slash social services, partly—in fact, I’d say primarily—they’re doing so because of the sort of racial narrative employed with dog whistle politics.

AARON MATÉ: This started, though, bipartisan, with George Wallace, who was a

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I think that’s right.

AARON MATÉ: —and also with Barry Goldwater, who was a Republican. Can you talk
about these two campaigns back in the ’60s?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Sure. I mean, I think it’s important to note that it starts—that it starts with George Wallace, in the sense of saying, listen, this isn’t—there’s nothing inherent in Republicanism that’s associated with racism. We need to be very clear about that. In fact, in 1960, before all of this really got underway, 29 percent of African Americans identified as Republican, right? Both parties in 1960 were similarly supportive of civil rights. But what happens is, politicians begin to look around for a way to get elected, and they realize race baiting can do that.

And so you have George Wallace, a Democrat. He runs as a racial moderate initially in 1958, and he loses. After he loses, he has this incredible moment. He’s about to give his concession speech, and he turns to his cronies, he’s leaving the car, and he says to his cronies, “No other son of a bitch is ever going to out-nigger me again.” And what he means is, “I’ve just lost to somebody who ran as a racial reactionary. I’m going to run as a racial reactionary.” And that’s what he sets out to do, and when he does, he wins. And it’s this moment where it becomes clear: Using race can help you win elections. It goes from George Wallace to Barry Goldwater, a Republican candidate. He uses race. He loses nationally. He wins in the South, right? So, there’s nothing inherent in Republicanism, but it becomes a tactic that is most closely associated with Republicans.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Ronald Reagan, 1980 speech, Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murders of the civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. This was Reagan’s first speech after accepting the Republican nomination for president. He proclaimed his fidelity to states’ rights.

RONALD REAGAN: I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

AMY GOODMAN: States’ rights. And before you respond to that, I wanted to bring it up to today. This is Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaking just last week when he outlined sweeping changes to the federal government’s anti-poverty programs.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Our current president and his liberal allies, what they propose to address is—their proposal is, let’s spend more on these failed programs, and let’s increase the minimum wage to $10.10. This—really? This is their solution to what the president has called the defining issue of our time? Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American dream. And our current government programs, at best, offer only a partial solution. They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help people emerge from poverty.

Therefore, what I am proposing today is the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages upward mobility since President Johnson first conceived the war on poverty 50 years ago today. I am proposing that we turn over Washington’s anti-poverty programs and the trillions that are spent on them to the states. Our anti-poverty program should be replaced with a revenue-neutral flex fund. We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into a single agency. Then, each year, these flex funds would be transferred to the states so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity. This worked in the 1990s with welfare reform.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Back to President Reagan.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Yeah, I think states’ rights is operating here on a couple of different levels. First, we should be clear, when Reagan talks about states’ rights, he’s actually picking up on Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater campaigned in the South in 1964 saying states’ rights, and everybody understood that states’ rights meant the right of Southern states to resist integration. Now, when Reagan campaigns using that same term in 1980, that’s just 16 years after these civil rights workers had been slain there. There isn’t a voter alive in that town who hadn’t been alive when these civil rights workers were lynched. And for him to go and say “states’ rights,” it’s a clear dog whistle, saying, “I understand that this term is about the ability of whites to resist integration.”

So, on one level, we have states’ rights, which is a clear sort of signal of opposition to integration; on the other, and here’s the dynamic that I think that’s really being picked up by Marco Rubio, states’ rights is also a way of saying, “We will devolve power over social justice programs, over safety net programs to the states, because we know that the states will use that to restrict these programs to whites.” That was the compromise that FDR and the Democrats made with the Southern Democrats in the New Deal that made sure that the New Deal programs didn’t help African Americans and didn’t help Latinos. It was the compromise that Clinton made in the '90s. And now it's the Republican policy.

And if you want to see that in operation, think about the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. All across the South, Southern states are refusing to extend Medicaid to the poor, even though it wouldn’t cost them a dime. We know what happens if you devolve social safety net programs to the states. States with an ugly racial history will use it in order to set a floor that effectively helps—that effectively ensures that poor minorities aren’t helped, even if that means the poor in general aren’t helped.

AARON MATÉ: I want to turn to Lee Atwater, one of the leading GOP strategists of the 1980s. He ran George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign in ’88 and later served as chair of the RNC. This is a clip from an interview that took place in 1981, but the audio only surfaced two decades later. Atwater explains how Republican candidates can win over white voters by appealing to racist views with coded language. A warning to our audience: He uses the N-word multiple times.

LEE ATWATER: Here’s how I would approach that issue as a statistician or a political scientist—or, no, as a psychologist, which I’m not, is how abstract you handle the race thing. In other words, you start out—now, ya’ll aren’t quoting me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger.” That hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff liked “forced busing,” “states’ rights” and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the byproduct of them is: Blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously, maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, that we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Do you follow me? Because, obviously, sitting around saying we want to cut taxes, we want to cut this, and we want—is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger,” you know. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Lee Atwater speaking in 1981. He went on to run the campaign for George H.W. Bush, that surprisingly beat Michael Dukakis, when Dukakis was favored, using a lot of very extreme racial imagery like the Willie Horton ad. Can you talk about that campaign?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I want to back—I want to talk about the Willie Horton ad, but I want to back up, because the Atwater quote is just so powerful. Atwater says, you know, you start in the '50s saying “nigger, nigger, nigger.” And that's important because we should realize we’re not saying that race has entered politics recently; we’re saying racism has been central to American politics for centuries, but it has changed form. After the civil rights movement, you couldn’t use open slurs like that. It’s political suicide now for any politician to use an open racial slur, so that the new public racism is coded. It always operates on two levels—on one level, triggering racial anxiety; on another, allowing plausible deniability. And Atwater traces that evolution. He says from “nigger, nigger, nigger” to states’ rights, to forced busing, and now—and this is really important—cutting taxes.

Why would cutting taxes operate as a dog whistle? It operates as a dog whistle because it comes against this background understanding that government is really about helping poor minorities, right? And so it’s this sense that my taxes, my taxes as a hard-working white person, are being taken to pay for these undeserving minorities. That’s the way in which you can have this Republican sort of constant drum beat: “The solution to all of our problems is to cut taxes.” Right? It’s coming against this background that taxes are somehow being hijacked and siphoned off to undeserving minorities. Now, OK, that’s pretty subtle.

Back to Lee Atwater and George Bush. George Bush was behind in the polls running against Dukakis. Lee Atwater came up with this person, Willie Horton, convicted murderer in Massachusetts, released on furlough. Dukakis had some—



AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we just go to the ad?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Sure, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you don’t have to describe it, especially for people maybe who are young enough not to be familiar with it, the—Willie Horton, the African-American convict who committed rape and assault after being released from prison under a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts. His menacing mug shot was featured prominently on the screen in what was widely seen as an attempt to appeal to the racially charged fears of white voters. It wasn’t directly sponsored by the Bush campaign, but many credit it as the brainchild of campaign manager Lee Atwater.

NATIONAL SECURITY POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE AD: Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.

AMY GOODMAN: That ad changed history.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Absolutely, because it got—it got George Bush elected. Couple of quick points: One, never mentioned race on the surface, clearly triggered racial anxiety, and yet the media took three years before they would believe that that was a racial dog whistle. We constantly lag in our appreciation of these dog whistles, which are constantly evolving. Two, the point of this sort of analysis is not to say, “Hey, there’s a lot of racism against minorities.” Yes, that’s a problem, but what’s core here is that this sort of racism is being used to fool a lot of whites into voting for Republicans whose main allegiance is to corporate interests. Right? And so, I really want to emphasize this point: This is about race, but this is about race as it affects all of us; this is about race as it wrecks the whole middle class.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but people don’t have to leave it there. You can read Ian Haney López’s book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class.

That does it for the show. We’ll be broadcasting from Tokyo, Japan, Wednesday through Friday. That’s tomorrow through Friday. I’ll be speaking at Sophia University in Tokyo on Saturday and in Kyoto on Sunday. Check our website, democracynow.org.

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