I’ve met many people who describe themselves as “colorblind.” One thing all these describers had in common was this: they were white. They were able to choose to discard a significant, visible facet of other people’s lives as irrelevant to them, personally.

Even before I began learning to speak Politics, then, I’d witnessed colorblindness used as a way to deny other people’s realities. Once I began studying, I saw threads of historical fact indicating that colorblindness itself had been cultivated as a (highly effective) political strategy.

Now, I hear people say their silence on race and racism means they are neutral. I wish they’d consider the possibility that, to the contrary, their silence upholds carefully crafted, destructive systems.

One paragraph in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Revolution introduces this strategy especially succinctly:

In 1969, Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips wrote a book titled The Emerging Republican Majority, which essentially argued that elections are won by focusing to people’s resentments. Nixon, once in office, mapped out a strategy to do just that, transforming ordinary whites’ anxieties, brought on by growing economic insecurity, into resentment against Blacks. Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, said as much in his diary of daily events in the White House. He wrote that Nixon had “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Wanting to share that paragraph but lacking time to expand on it myself, I searched for articles I could recommend here.  I landed on Salon’s “How conservatives hijacked ‘colorblindness’ and set civil rights back decades.” It packs a lot of history into a brief article, which means it’s both illuminating and a little dry. TL;DR version: Politicians mostly didn’t even bother hiding the ways they manipulated visions of race for their benefit, all across the United States.

I ended up buying its author’s book,Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.” I was willing to take a little dryness for the history I hoped I’d find, but I was surprised. It’s one of the warmest, most eloquent political books I’ve (begun to) read so far, delving into difficult matters with sensitivity and nuance. I especially love how Haney-Lopez emphasizes, clear and early, that racism is not a sign of corrupted, evil character:

Like most, I had been conditioned to think of racism as hatred, and racists as pathologically disturbed individuals. To be sure, sadistic racists exist, and racism is frequently bound up with the emotional heat of fear and hatred. But as I began to intuit while hitchhiking through the landscape of apartheid, most racists are good people.

Understanding this is critical to understanding and overcoming (what I’d describe as) the evils worked by colorblindness concealing coded racist, politically advantageous dog whistles. 

What exactly is a dog whistle? Haney-Lopez describes it as “a metaphor that pushes us to recognize that modern racial pandering always operates on two levels: inaudible and easily denied in one range, yet stimulating strong reactions in another.”

Why dog whistles? Why, as long as folks can be persuaded to view the powerless as The Threat, they’ll be distracted from the real threat that has long menaced members of the 99% of all skin tones: policies crafted to enrich the few by starving the many.

I hope you’ll check out Haney-Lopez’s book to explore this more deeply. Short of that, I encourage you to read his article and take a few minutes to consider what grim, destructive truths can be–and have been–concealed behind evocative euphemisms.

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5 thoughts on “U.S. Politicians: Will Racist for Votes

  1. Interesting article. I think, growing up in South Africa, I’m less aware of individuals’ race than the Americans I know seem to be. I don’t mean that I claim to be “colorblind” – I agree with you that willfully ignoring an important part of who a person is is both wrong and counter-productive. But I’m just so used to being surrounded by people of a different race that I don’t particularly notice it. (I’m not claiming that this makes me “less racist” or “better” … It’s just something I find interesting when these discussions arise.) I became aware of this when I took the Hubbit over to SA for a few months about five years into our marriage. One time I pulled up at a shopping center and blithely went marching through the crowds, and it was only when I saw, from his face, how uncomfortable and scared he was that I realized we were the only white people in sight. I realized also how uncomfortable some parts of America must be for black people. I wish we could be different … not blind, but comfortably accepting our differences.

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  2. It’s the differences between people that drive the fear some have. I’ve been aware of silence and claiming “color-blindness” is veiled racism. I’m guilty of this myself and have even written about it in the past. I leave those posts up (well, most of them) as a reminder of the flawed logic that drove me to write them in the first place. I truly believe that most Americans are ready to accept the kind of profound change in thinking required to be more understanding of differences but lack the conviction or someone to follow in order to get there. Just the fact you wrote this, and I read it, is a step in the right direction. For our children’s sake, I hope we get there sooner rather than later. Certain political figures are unfortunately not helping anyone right now.

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    1. I agree with all you’ve written above! I, too, leave up such posts as a reminder of the journey … and the good in being able and willing to embrace new information and update my thinking. I remember one man telling me, “Women always change their minds” (during a long-ago discussion related to politics). That was the strangest thing to me. How’s it a virtue to discard undesirable facts and cling to conclusions that can only be reached without them?! I’m changing my mind a little every day as I learn a little more.

      I’m now about one-third of the way through the book. I’m so glad I found it just as I was struggling to understand this more deeply than a paragraph here and there was helping me do! The handful of quotes I read elsewhere failed to convey the depth and scope of racism as a strategy, so that I looked at both primary presidential candidates dog whistling left and right and confused the whistles as reflections of something else instead of their very own, considered strategy. This book is helping draw connections I felt but couldn’t yet begin understanding with nuance, or articulating.

      I feel so much hope as I read. What we have been taught and duly learned, we can also unlearn with attention and care … and, oh, there is a lot of care out there!

      Liked by 2 people

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