U.S. Republican strategist Lee Atwater spoke the words above in 1981. Later in the same interview, he’d try to separate Ronald Reagan’s presidential win from the tried and true race-based success strategy he described, but other factors spoke their own truth.
In particular, after winning the Republican primary in 1980, Reagan chose to launch his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near where the KKK had lynched three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan did this after a local official wrote the Republican National Committee “assuring them that the [fair] was an ideal place for winning ‘George Wallace inclined voters.'”
Who was George Wallace, though? What did it mean to be a “George Wallace inclined voter”?
In 1958, NAACP-endorse, racial moderate Wallace ran for Alabama governor. He lost to KKK-endorsed John Malcolm Patterson, who later attributed Wallace’s loss to the fact he was “soft on the race question at the time.”
Wallace learned quickly. The night of his loss, he proclaimed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” Strategically utilizing race and racism in the 1962 governor’s race as promised in 1958, he won the governorship. Unfortunately for the country, this situated him to extend what he’d learned about successful use of coded racial appeals (aka “dog whistles,” heard clearly by one audience while not clearly audible by other audiences) to a national stage. After acting to bar integration of black students into white schools in June 1963, he received more than 100,000 letters from across the United States. Only five of every 100 letters condemned him; the “other 95 percent praised his brave stand in the schoolhouse doorway.” From this, Wallace and politicians nationwide learned that racial resentment wasn’t strictly a southern thing. Covertly evoking race could lead to election successes throughout the nation.
Victory could no longer be gained by overt, explicit shows of racism such as had once been acceptable. It had to be veiled for audiences increasingly discomfited by blatant white supremacist language and action.
Barry Goldwater extended these lessons to the presidential stage in 1964, when “he sold his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a bold stand in favor of ‘states’ rights’ and ‘freedom of association'” (aka “freedom from integration with dark-skinned folks”). Goldwater didn’t win, but Nixon ran with dog whistle law-and-order themes straight to the presidency.
In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez traces the history of dog whistle racism in the U.S. He describes this as strategic racism, or “purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing.” Its roots ran deep in the U.S. South, where “the material interests of wealthy whites” inspired creation of a new form of slavery after slavery itself was abolished.
How did these wealthy whites protect their economic interest in exploitation? By using a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” With this exception amended into the Constitution, governments began leasing convicts to private concerns at low rates, benefiting both government and the former slaveholders who’d once had to bear high costs of slave upkeep. The new arrangement enabled former slaveholders–and folks newer to the game–to easily, cheaply replace those many convicts who died in cruel, profit-enhancing human-leasing conditions.
Haney Lopez emphasizes this strategy:
while unconscious notions of white superiority and black depravity no doubt played a role, convict leasing was not the product of anyone’s id. Unconscious minds did not elaborate new criminal laws or devise a new form of chattel slavery even more lethal than its predecessor. Nor was convict leasing a mere continuation of past structures, unaided by contemporary actors. This was not inertia, but purposeful effort. Convict leasing constituted a carefully planned shift in the machinery of labor extraction. Southern elites systematically set about creating a new form of racial exploitation, building a system arguably more brutal, deadly, and dehumanizing than slavery itself. Today’s dominant conceptions of racism do not give us a way to fathom this process. For that, we need a different understanding of racism, seeing it as sometimes cold and calculating.
The strategy is not specifically about race-based hatred. Rather, it’s used for “the pursuit of power, money, and/or status.” If other non-racial means are or were available to calculating politicians, these would be used instead.
Haney-Lopez compellingly demonstrates how racism has been intentionally adapted by canny elites to suit changing times and circumstances. Specifically, it’s been used to both enhance benefits to a small few and deflect attention from the modern robber barons who use race strategically. In this vein, Reagan and other Republicans have “vastly expanded federal power and dramatically increased the national debt, not least through unsustainable tax giveaways to the rich.” Remarkably, “they sold tax cuts for the rich, and indeed the whole agenda of reduced regulation and slashed services, as an expression of hostility toward liberal government” that purportedly made brown-skinned folks wealthy–by welfare–on the dime of hardworking (read: white) taxpayers.
Quite successfully, they sold (much of) white America a make-believe villain to stop it from seeking the real ones.
Neither Democrats nor Republican elites are innocent, though Republicans have most recently led this charge. The almost exclusively white Tea Party has been central to this, though it’s recently been careful to tactically elevate people of color in an effort to demonstrate its non-racism. The wealthy Koch brothers have been critical to funding and fueling this effort, stealthily working to implicate in working class Americans’ suffering those people far from powerful in order to prop up those with already immense power.
To understand how carefully was crafted the modern standard of any expression of race as reflecting racist hatred, you’ll need to read the book yourself. There’s no way I can synopsize the book without missing vast quantities of incredibly important nuance, context, and historical grounding. Here, it’s important simply to note that the American shift from understanding racism as systemic to seeing is as only in blatant individual hostilities has been carefully and intentionally cultivated, concealing not only how prevalent racism remains today … but who benefits by its adaptable, enduring presence, mostly unheard by those not immediately, directly harmed by dog whistles.
By divorcing race from social context, conservatives can describe racism as merely treating someone differently on the basis of race. Racism need not involve subordination, for the socially irrelevant character of blood suggests that any differential treatment is morally wrong. Colorblindness shifts the harm of racism from degradation, exclusion, and exploitation, to being treated differently on the basis of a socially irrelevant characteristic–no matter how benign the motive.
Colorblindness is not the solution, for reasons Haney Lopez elucidates well. It lends enduring power to racially coded messages, which may principally be countered–and successfully neutralized–by being pointed out. “Keeping the message implicit was important to its ability to achieve the intended result of mobilizing whites’ racial fears, stereotypes, and resentments. When the racial nature of the message was explicitly pointed out, it lost much of its racial power.” Dog whistle politicians, then, “manipulate these background views and emotions, but succeed with most whites only as long as the racial appeals stay below conscious recognition.”
“What made [tearing this nation asunder by race without explicitly mentioning race] plausible? It’s colorblindness that provides crucial cover. Colorblindness allows conservatives to insist that race means blood and nothing more, so that references to culture and behavior cannot be about race. And it’s colorblindness that promotes the claim that racism only exists when someone confesses to malice or uses an epithet.”
What does this mean for Americans interested in genuine justice? Being silent in the face of coded racial appeals ensures the current dangerous-to-all status quo remains unchecked. “‘Transforming an implicit appeal into an explicit one is among the surest ways to neutralize it,’ Mendelberg wrote in her concluding chapter. ‘The counterstrategy of remaining silent on race in the face of an implicit racial appeal is a losing strategy.'”
The status quo is not neutral. “Mass incarceration and mass deportation, the economic calamity confronting many in the middle class, the return of robber baron-era levels of inequality, and the increasing threats to once sacrosanct welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare–all of these testify to the error of going mute in the face of dog whistle racism.” Indeed, “vast inequalities corrode social solidarity, and we must warn against the robber barons–individuals as well as corporations–that use their power and influence to promote only their own interests, with no regard for the damage they do to the rest of us.”
Haney Lopez urges liberals to “redefine racism to include unconscious racism, structural racism, commonsense racism, strategic racism and–last but very far from least–dog whistle racism.” With no challenge whatsoever, the most conservative elements among U.S. political elites will continue having free reign to define it in ways that suit them best.
The book begins with descriptions of a professor whose fairly grim conclusions about racism the author originally rejected. He no longer rejects them, and instead affirms them by this book:
Bell insistently connected the fates of the disadvantaged and the privileged, showing how their diminishment threatened to drag us down and, more uncomfortably, how our status helped to justify their misery. Bell believed, ultimately, in mutual responsibility as a command that we look well beyond ourselves to see our connection to suffering.
This post emphasizes one book, as seen through one white American woman’s eyes. While this post is written with emphasis on Haney Lopez’s book, it’s also been shaped by readings like Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. It also draws on unnamed readings from the last seven or eight years, when I first began learning–thanks to my Black husband, who then began preparing me for life with Black children–that racism remains a powerful force in the modern U.S.