Racist appeals undermining the middle class
Opinion: Author decries role of dog-whistle politics
By Darrell Delamaide- marketwatch.com
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) – Not only is the U.S. far from achieving a post-racial society, but dog-whistle politics is reinforcing the role of race and contributing to the decline of the middle class as whites vote against their own best interests.
This is the thesis in a new book by Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who says that racism in this country is not dead, only taking on new forms as it adapts to changes in society.
While neither the concept of dog-whistle politics nor the phenomenon of single-issue voters is new, Haney López re-frames the debate in terms of race and its impact on our widening political divide and growing economic inequality.
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Dog-whistle politics refers to code words or phrases that carry connotations readily apparent to a target audience, much as a dog can hear the high-pitched whistle that doesn’t register with humans. The Republican Party, he argues, is using coded language to rally white voters to its side, even if it means voting against their own economic interests.
“Over the last half-century conservatives have used racial pandering to win support from white voters for policies that principally favor the very wealthy and wreck the middle class,” Haney López writes. “Running on racial appeals, the right has promised to protect supposedly embattled whites, when in reality it has largely harnessed government to the interests of the very affluent.”
Veiled references to the undeserving poor, illegal aliens and sharia law carry racial undertones that avoid the stigma of overt racism but nonetheless provoke the desired reaction.
This tactic does not concern just the blacks, Latinos and Muslims targeted by these innuendoes, the author goes on to say, but also the vast swath of white middle class, whether they fall in line with this Republican appeal or not.
“Members of the middle class … typically harbor an unfounded certainty that race holds little relevance to them or their future,” Haney López writes. “The could not be more wrong, for race constitutes the dark magic by which middle-class voters have been convinced to turn government over to the wildly affluent, notwithstanding the harm this does to themselves.”
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Haney López cites the arguments developed by his professor at Harvard Law School, Derrick Bell, which he resisted at the time but has now come to accept — that racism is a permanent feature in American society and politics.
Permanent, the author came to realize, does not mean fixed and unchanging. The key is that it adapts in order to maintain white dominance.
“The bottom line is that Professor Bell was correct,” he says, “racism is not disappearing, it’s adapting.”
Haney López’s book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” appears as the polarization around the country’s first black president shows no signs of abating.
Pundits proclaim that demographics herald the triumph of a multiracial Democratic Party, but in fact a Republican Party that panders to whites while rejecting and even insulting most nonwhites continues to win elections.
In our gerrymandered country, constitutionally skewed to protect minority interest groups, there is talk of Republicans retaining control of the House in the 2014 elections and even capturing the Senate, despite all the talk of non-white racial minorities becoming the majority.
President Barack Obama, in fact, has exacerbated the problem by trying to stand above race. “But in order to avoid race,” Haney López says, “he apparently calculates he must keep his distance from liberalism, too.”
This accounts for Obama’s failure to utilize the financial crisis for a genuine dose of liberal policies, the author says, instead of accepting “conservative mythmaking” about tax cuts and deficit reduction.
Haney López does not buy the argument that Republican obstructionism restricted Obama’s field of action when he took office. The Republican Party was in disarray, and its leaders, from outgoing President George Bush to election losers John McCain and Sarah Palin, were unpopular.
“Far from being hamstrung by the right, Obama’s refusal to offer a liberal counterweight to right-wing mythmaking may have contributed to the conservative resurgence,” the author says.
“The vacuum left by Obama’s refusal to embrace liberal ideas and policies allowed conservatives to offer once again their standard story of race and betrayal, big government and victimization.”
Haney López catalogues evolving dog-whistle topics as racism continues to adapt — the attack on public schools, the xenophobic warnings about competition from China, and even expanding the definition of “white” to include Latinos much as it earlier expanded from a narrow Anglo-Saxon base to include southern Europeans.
The best antidote to this coded racism, the author concludes, is to call it out for what it is, ignoring the catcalls that doing so is playing the race card.
Civil-rights organizations must continue to fight for racial justice, which is far from being achieved simply because the first black president has been elected. Unions must enter that space where race and poverty intersect.
Above all, the author contends, there must be an effort to restore liberalism. This may mean supporting Democrats for the most part, but Democratic politicians have been known to resort to dog-whistle politics, too.
The challenge, Haney López believes, is to renew the Democratic Party’s commitment to liberalism. He blames the fading impact of Occupy Wall Street on the movement’s failure to engage in partisan politics and force change in the Democratic Party in the way the tea-party movement pushed the Republican Party to the right.
Haney López brings his argument full circle to the current fight against poverty and inequality. He cites Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address urging a “second Bill of Rights” — which included “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and education and clothing” — and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 call for a Poor People’s March on Washington to seek “a new economic deal for the poor.”
This is not looking backward, the author says, but is a call “to restore an interrupted future.” He urges a new commitment “to making sure racism doesn’t continue to bind our greatest aspirations.”
Darrell Delamaide is a political columnist for MarketWatch in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWDelamaide.