There is no doubt, and it is confirmed in this book, that racism is the original sin of the United States. It has changed over time—manifesting itself at various times through slavery, Jim Crow, excessive incarcerations of minorities, and the like—but it has remained a constant in American society. Ian Haney López, a law professor at UC-Berkeley, has written a useful, but highly partisan, history of the manner in which racism has been used in politics since the 1960s. His focus is on the manner in which the Republican Party has embraced certain types of subtle race-baiting arguments to win votes and therefore elections. Hence the term “dog whistle politics” to describe it; it is something not everyone perceives but when attuned to the nuances it is definitely perceptible.
López succeeds best when he sticks to an engaging and informative history of how certain politicians, especially conservative Republicans of the 1960s but certainly they were not the only ones, adopted a stance in opposition to racial desegregation, Great Society programs, and other initiatives aimed at achieving a more equitable society. Some, such as Alabama Governor George Wallace, did so in no small measure as means to cater to his racist electorate and not out of any deep seated racism on his part. This became known as the “Southern Strategy” to win elections. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan took this route as well, but they became much more subtle in their arguments. Instead of directly mentioning race in arguments, Reagan, for instance, made much of made-up Welfare queens who collected multiple government checks, drove Cadillacs, and abused the system. Never mentioning race in this denunciation of abuse of the system, Reagan’s story used coded language to make it clear that he was speaking of African Americans.
Those efforts have continued to the present. We find now that attacks on the social safety net are largely couched in “dog whistle” political arguments. Very few people want to dismantle such programs as Unemployment Insurance, Medicaid, and Social Security. The only inroads that those opposed to them ideologically can make is through coded attacks that suggest that those receiving these benefits are somehow obtaining them illegitimately because they are lazy, etc. Many of these attacks play on racial stereotypes; this is the “dog whistle” of racism in modern society.
The same was true of the Tea Party of the recent past, according to López. Fueled by the economic meltdown of 2008, largely older disaffected whites energized the political arena with a class/race/ethnicity/religious perspective that sought to overturn the New Deal/Great Society consensus that had been in place for much of the twentieth century. The villains in this great disaffection, somewhat incomprehensibly to those on the political left, were not the corporate bad actors who had destroyed the economy but those who were accepting government subsidies to keep them afloat through a tough period. López makes much of Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC on February 19, 2009, about the government bailing out “losers.” At sum, this was a not so muted “dog whistle,” complaining that “money from hardworking Americans was being siphoned off to reward minority freeloaders” (p. 149). Couple that with the first African American president in history and the Tea Party’s racism emerged to question the president’s legitimacy, even his birthplace, in ways never encountered before.
This is a useful book in many ways, relating as it does the evolution of this aspect of political discourse in the U.S. But in becoming an editorialist more than an historian López goes too far in his discussion. He diagnoses the problem, fair enough, but his proposed solutions are less helpful. He recommends attuning ourselves to the “dog whistles” and responding to them as they arise. He embraces the idea of political organizing to force the elimination of race from the political equation. I am uncertain how that might work. In the end it will probably convince you that racism is alive and well in modern America despite efforts to eliminate most outward vestiges of it.