Dog Whistle Politics
When politicians use coded language they defend as benign, but is intended to provoke strong emotional responses in their target audiences.
“Racial dog whistles are often sneakily used when politicians want to speak about race specifically to their target audience. The coded messages are used to reinforce racist ideas that the country’s societal and economic problems are because of undeserving, lazy, and violent people of color.
There are three aspects involved when politicians use racial dog whistles, according to Haney-López.
First, politicians force race into the conversation through “thinly veiled” racist remarks against people of color. Second, they make sure to not directly reference any one racial or ethnic group, so they can’t be accused of direct racism. And third, they shame any critics who try to call them out on the racist comments.
While Trump has been a master at using racial dog whistles to get in favor with white voters, he isn’t the only politician to ever use them.
Ever since the Republican “Southern Strategy” of the 1960s, many politicians have used racial dog whistles to appeal to white Americans, regardless of their politics. Racial dog whistles have even worked on white liberal and moderate voters, who might consciously be “against” racism, but still hold implicit biases.
So what are some other ways politicians, namely presidents, have employed racial dog whistles and how has it negatively impacted our communities?
Here are four major examples.
1. ‘Law and Order’
On the surface, the phrase “law and order” seems pretty non-threatening. Politicians who use it seem to be saying that their policies will focus on making sure the law will be upheld, and that any lawbreakers will be held accountable. What could be so bad about that?
Politicians use the phrase to signal that people of color are inherently criminal, and that we defy laws for no good reason. It implies that extra measures, such as broken windows policing, which promotes harsh punishment strategies under the belief that tolerating minor infractions encourages more serious violent crimes, need to be implemented in order to uphold the law.
Famously Used By: Richard Nixon used the rhetoric of “law and order” in 1968 to appeal to white voters who were angry about integration. He claimed that he was a candidate for the “silent majority,” the other population of whites who weren’t protesting social injustices like Jim Crow and the Vietnam War.
In His Own Words: “[My campaign ad] hits it right on the nose. It’s all about law and order and the damn N*gro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”
How It Affects Us Today: With the exception of Trump saying we need more “law and order,” which would directly impact Black and Latinx neighborhoods, the phrase isn’t used much anymore. However, the message behind it still resonates with conservatives and liberals alike.
Liberals and conservatives alike objected to BLM because they claimed that the protests were “disrupting people’s lives” and “promoting rioting and violence.” In that case, upholding the status quo and obeying the law was the most important thing, instead of recognizing that the laws are unjust and need to be fixed.
2. The ‘Welfare Queen’
Devoid of context, “welfare queen” is a strange phrase. Without any context, it seems to be talking about a woman who receives government assistance. On its own, why would that be bad?
The Dog Whistle: Historically, the term “welfare queen” has been a commonly used stereotype against Black women.
It’s used to imply that Black women on social programs like welfare are lazy people who don’t do anything to “help themselves.” Instead, they have children to use up government money and the tax dollars of “hard-working” (read: white) Americans to live luxuriously.
In Reagan’s speeches, he never explicitly used the term “Black” or “African-American.” Instead, he drew upon stereotypes of Black people, such as the “over sexualized woman” and the “violent big, Black buck” tropes, to draw the connection between race and criminality.
These speeches implied that Black people were criminals who refused to work. Instead, they tricked the government by abusing welfare systems to buy themselves extravagant things. One of his speeches in particular spoke about how frustrating it was to buy a hamburger at the grocery store, when someone on welfare could buy a T-bone steak.
In His Own Words: “She used eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] fifteen telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
How It Affects Us Today: Because of this rhetoric, an increasing amount of restrictions are placed on public assistance programs, many of which make it even more impossible for people to pull themselves out of poverty.
This is an issue because, as the Census Bureau data has proven, welfare programs are extremely effective. These programs aren’t a burden on society, but rather ways to help people and stimulate the economy.
These types of stereotypes about Black people “living off the government” still exist today and Black people are still demonized for needing public assistanc.
For instance, back in 2012, then-GOP candidate Rick Santorum stated he was against welfare because he didn’t “want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” In 2015, Gene Alday, a Republican politician from Mississippi, claimed that “all the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call ‘welfare crazy checks…They don’t work.”
3. ‘Tough on Crime’
Saying “tough on crime” is pretty similar to saying “law and order.” Politicians who use it promise that they’ll enact policies that make the United States safer to live in. In theory, this should work for everyone – who wants to live somewhere that lets bad criminals go?
The Dog Whistle: “Tough on crime” is primarily used as a code for “tough on Black and Latinx people, who are dangerous!”
Tough-on-crime politicians are generally always in support of increased police presence and harsh punitive measures for “non-violent” crimes, which have historically not only put people of color in jails, but in many cases, have caused their murders at the hands of the police.
Famously Used By: Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” speeches during his presidential campaigns in the 1990s were used to sway white voters toward the “New Democrats.” Unlike previous Democrats, Clinton’s campaign promises leaned more to the right and included his support for things, such as supporting the death penalty and increased welfare restrictions.
Clinton spoke about how it was important to crack down on “inner city” criminals in order to make the country safer. He later created policies such as the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded measures that doled out harsh sentences.
Among other things, it increased funding for prisons and implemented a “three strikes” mandatory life sentence policy that locked up many Black and Latinx for minor offenses.
In His Own Words: “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”
Civil rights lawyer and advocate Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow, “once again…a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites.”
Today, Black people are incarcerated 5.1 times the rate of white people, according to a report by The Sentencing Project.
4. ‘War on Terror’
This phrase evokes an image of the US military (and the nation) banding together to fight against all evils that threaten our liberty and justice. And who wouldn’t want to fight terror and defend our freedom?
The Dog Whistle: What isn’t explicit is that the “terror” that many politicians want us to go to war against are actually people of Arab and Muslim descent, who “for no reason at all,” hate everything the US stands for (like freedom and women’s rights).
Proponents of fighting the “war on terror” often push for more military funding, invasions into other countries, and stricter immigration laws – all in the name of keeping (white) Americans safe from evil Arab and Muslim people.
Famously Used By: Immediately after 9/11, George W. Bush declared we would be going to war with all terrorists capable of harming the US, and created a large-scale military campaign in order to do so.
In particular, Bush cited North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as countries that were hiding weapons of mass destruction and that actively trampled on their citizen’s rights. In his 2002 State of the Union address, he said these nations “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
This also led to nationwide acts of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia against all people coded as Muslim and Arab. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslim people or people believed to be Muslim went up 1600% after 9/11.
In His Own Words: “Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
How It Affects Us Today: Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and people perceived to be members of these groups in the United States have been continuously stereotyped as anti-American terrorists and have been brutalized and forced to apologize for it.
Two Indian men, for instance, were shot in a Kansas bar in February by a white man who yelled, “Get out of my country!” The suspect gloated that he killed two Iranian men.
Last year, a new study released by California State University, San Bernardino found that hate crimes against Muslims were up 78% in 2015.
In addition to domestic hate crimes, the US continues to bomb countless Muslim-majority countries while simultaneously banning Muslim refugees from entering, all in the name of “keeping America safe.”
Just recently, the US military attacked Syria and Afghanistan in the name of “resisting terrorism.” And it hasn’t just happened under the current president. Under President Obama, there were more than 400 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Africa from 2009 to 2015.”
Few more dog whistle examples from the Trump/Clinton Election from CNN, “Decoding the ‘dog whistle’ politics of Trump and Clinton“
“Consider the examples below as subtle but effective ways Trump and Clinton have tried to rally, wink, or tug at the emotions of their supporters when they talk about race and ethnicity.
(Decoded: Blacks and Hispanics live in dangerous, poor, crime ridden cities.)
In the first presidential debate, one of Donald Trump’s most memorable comments about communities of color was when he said “African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous.”
Hell, it appears, is also synonymous with the “inner city” that Trump invokes when speaking about black and brown Americans, an equivalency that paints a dismal economic and social environment filled with crime and danger.
“It makes no sense to use a phrase such as ‘inner city’ as a stand in for the complexity and variety of people of color in the United States,” said Ian Haney-Lopez, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.
Phrases like “inner city” are used in this context “as a proxy for language meant to trigger negative images of people of color.”
Ryan Lauth, a communications professor at Northwestern University, said “inner city” invokes images of “white flight” when whites were escaping decaying urban areas in favor of what they considered safer suburbs. The term is used to invoke fear in rural and suburban voters who want to elect someone who will stop crime from spreading, Lauth said.
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at The Manhattan Institute, says those who criticize Trump for using these phrases are missing the point. “It means that you can’t talk about crime without being called a racist?” Mac Donald said. “He’s not assuming that all blacks and Hispanics live in inner cities, he’s saying in urban areas crime is extremely high.”
“Criminal illegal aliens”
(Decoded: Scary and dangerous undocumented brown people.)
During the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence repeatedly used the term “criminal aliens” to describe undocumented Mexican immigrants who commit crimes.
During the second presidential debate, Trump expanded the term to include the word “illegal.”
Said Trump: “We have many criminal illegal aliens. When we want to send them back to their country, their country says we don’t want them. In some cases, they’re murderers, drug lords, drug problems.”
For Haney-Lopez, this language represents “the boogey man of 2016” and casts undocumented immigrants as “inherently criminal” and as “dark skinned Latinos without documents preying on good decent hardworking white Americans.”
The term helps Trump “justify his comments about Mexican immigrants being rapists and murderers,” said Lauth, by making en emotional appeal to Americans who are frustrated with Mexican immigrants “taking our jobs.”
(Decoded: “I get it — racism is real.”)
In debates and speeches, Clinton has taken to using terms like “systemic racism” and “implicit bias” that were once favored by academics and are now slowly making their way into the mainstream.
Haney-Lopez said Clinton was employing a more subtle form of dog whistling, a secret handshake if you will, that won’t register with everyone.
In addition, using the phrase “implicit bias” helps Clinton talk about racism in a way that may be easier for more conservative voters to accept, said Lauth, since it stems from subconscious prejudices that people are unaware they have.
“The term implicit bias will satisfy a lot of people that are looking for a very explicit answer to the problem of police brutality,” Lauth said. “It also helps her in walking that line between Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter.”
Some of the evolution of Clinton’s language around race can be linked to her bumpy relationship with activists of color who have criticized the candidate for, among other things, calling some young criminals “super predators” when her husband was president.
Many interpreted that phrase as being a code for young black men. (Trump didn’t miss the opportunity to dredge up the phrase during the first debate calling it “a terrible thing to say.”)
Clinton also fumbled with wide swaths of working class white voters when she called a segment of Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” That term, Lauth said, “makes people feel irredeemable, people that are so bad they can never come back.”
Haney-Lopez agreed. Trump supporters say ”I know in my heart I’m not a racist. That’s an attack of me as a white person.'”
Examples of dog whistle politics on The Trump Presidency: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)