University of California, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-Lopez gave what he called his very first PowerPoint presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 12, in University of California, Santa Barbara’s Multicultural Center theater to introduce his book.
The term “dog whistle” is a metaphor that describes the coded language politicians use to trigger racial anxiety while appearing innocuous, though the message is thinly veiled.
Lopez introduced some terms politicians use to evoke stereotypical mental images, such as “welfare queen” and “food stamp president.” These terms, he argued, do much more than create divisive attitudes about race. They have also historically influenced the way people vote, which nurtured a political climate that allowed income inequality to blossom.
Lopez began a brief history lesson with George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama who found anti-integration sentiments to be more popular than talk about taxes and schools, promising, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in 1963. As public support for integration grew, Wallace had to stifle his overtly racist language. He shifted the integration conversation to “states’ rights,” which sounded less racially charged but still evoked racist anti-integration ideas in the minds of voters.
To illustrate the intentional nature of dog whistle politics, Lopez talked about Lee Atwater, a Republican political strategist for Reagan and H.W. Bush who celebrated the fact that he could link Bush’s opponent, Dukakis, to William Horton, a convicted rapist and murderer. Under a furlough program for prisoners in Massachusetts, Horton was released from prison for a weekend. He did not return and killed a man and raped a woman. Though Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time, he did not start the furlough program. Still, Atwater used the incident to incite fear against Dukakis. He said of Dukakis’ weak link to Horton, “Willie Horton has star quality…it is a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big, black rapist.”
Lopez did not ignore the Democrats’ participation in dog whistle politics. If they do not use racially coded language themselves, which has been the case, they are at least complicit with its wide-spread use.
“They tend to silence each other,” he said of Democrats, adding that “conservatives have a powerful retort” to any accusation of racism in their rhetoric. The retort is their insistence on remaining colorblind, claiming that words such as “welfare queen” have nothing to do with race. According to Lopez, activists need to combat this kind of culturally accepted racism, rather than institutional racism, if they want voters to understand the dog whistle rhetoric that remains covertly prevalent in 2013.
“We really need to think about what we mean by terms like race and racist,” he said, adding that racism “in the ‘hate every black and brown person’ sense” should not be the topic of discussion.
“Most racists are good people,” Lopez said, and he insisted that the way to combat racism is to focus on educating Americans about its persistent cultural presence.