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Ian Haney Lopez on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race

Author and legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez tells Bill that dog whistle politics is “the dark magic” by which middle-class voters have been seduced to vote against their own economic interests.

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Author and legal scholar Ian Haney López tells Bill that dog whistle politics is “the dark magic” by which middle-class voters have been seduced to vote against their own economic interests.

What do Cadillac-driving “welfare queens,” a “food stamp president” and the “lazy, dependent and entitled” 47 percent tell us about post-racial America? They’re all examples of a type of coded racism that this week’s guest, Ian Haney López, writes about in his new book, Dog Whistle Politics.

Haney López is an expert in how racism has evolved in America since the civil rights era. Over the past 50 years, politicians have mastered the use of dog whistles – code words that turn Americans against each other while turning the country over to plutocrats. This political tactic, says Haney López, is “the dark magic” by which middle-class voters have been seduced to vote against their own economic interests.

“It comes out of a desire to win votes. And in that sense… It’s racism as a strategy. It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s considered,” Haney López tells Bill, “it’s the decision to achieve one’s own ends, here winning votes, by stirring racial animosity.”

Ian Haney López, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, is a senior fellow at the policy analysis and advocacy group, Demos.


BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company how dog whistle politics use race to influence your vote. Historian Ian Haney López breaks the code.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Dog whistle politics doesn’t come out of some desire to hurt minorities. It comes out of a desire to win votes. It’s racism as a strategy. It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s considered, it’s the decision to achieve one’s own ends, here winning votes, by stirring racial animosity.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. A dog whistle doesn’t sound like much to your ears or mine, but it will make the neighborhood canines come running faster than you can shout Lassie or Rin Tin Tin.

This whistle sends its signal at a frequency only dogs can hear. Which makes it an apt metaphor for this new book, Dog Whistle Politics, by my guest Ian Haney López. He’s broken the code on the racist politics of the last 50 years, as politicians mastered the use of dog whistles to turn Americans against each other while turning America over to plutocrats. The dog whistle of racism, says Ian Haney López, is the “dark magic” by which middle-class voters have been seduced to vote against their own economic interests.

Ian Haney López is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, after teaching at Yale, New York University and Harvard. Dog Whistle Politics is his third book. Welcome.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Thank you very much, glad to be here.

BILL MOYERS: So why did you use this for the title of your book Dog Whistle Politics?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Well, think about a term like “welfare queen” or “food stamp president.” On one level, like a dog whistle, it’s silent. Silent about race. It seems race-neutral. But on another, it also has a shrill blast, like a dog whistle, that can be heard by certain folks. And what the blast is is a warning about race and a warning, in particular about threatening minorities.

And the idea that I’m trying to get across here is, racism has evolved. Or, in particular, public racism has evolved. The way in which racism, the way in which racial divisions are stoked in public discourse has changed. And now it operates on two levels. On one level, it allows plausible deniability. This isn’t really about race, it’s just about welfare. Just about food stamps. And on another, there’s a subtext, an underground message which can be piercingly loud, and that is: minorities are threatening us.

And so when people dog whistle about criminals, welfare cheats, terrorists, Islam, Sharia law, ostensibly they’re talking about culture, behavior, religion, but underneath are these old stereotypes of degraded minorities, but also, and this is important, implicitly of whites who are trustworthy, hard-working, decent.

BILL MOYERS: When I talk to people, I’m doing a group discussion somewhere, if I ask white people in the audience, if race is still relevant in your lives, they say absolutely not. You know, we’re colorblind, is often what you hear.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Right. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: And they believe that, don’t you think?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: They do believe it. And it’s important they believe it. And it’s important for us to recognize that they believe it and that it’s genuine. Look, here’s a hard, difficult truth. Most racists are good people. They’re not sick. They’re not ruled by anger or raw emotion or hatred. They are complicated people reared in complicated societies.

They’re fully capable of generosity, of empathy, of real kindness. But because of the idea systems in which they’re reared, they’re also capable of dehumanizing others and occasionally of brutal violence. And that’s an important truth. Most people are not racist out of some sort of a sickness of the soul. They’re racist because of the society in which they operate.


IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: We need to understand that race has been one of the ways in which we’ve explained why certain groups get certain privileges and advantages and why other groups don’t get privileges or are exploited or are excluded from the country.

This operates not just in terms of class relations and group relations, this operates in terms of a common sense understanding of who’s trustworthy, who is decent, who is law-abiding, and in contrast, who’s loathsome, who’s diseased, who’s dangerous. That common sense of race used to be openly expressed through the 1950s, let’s say. Now it’s not openly expressed. And that’s one of the great triumphs of the civil rights movement. We ought not to gainsay that. But on the other hand, it didn’t all go away. It’s still there under the surface. Now it doesn’t, we don’t hear it in the language expressly of race, but we hear it in the language of culture and behavior.

BILL MOYERS: There are some assumptions in society, a general proposition, unexamined, that blacks prefer welfare to work, that undocumented immigrants breed crime, and that Islam spawns violence. Those are dog whistles, are they not?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I think they’re absolutely dog whistles. They’re dog whistles in the sense that they’re stereotypes.

A stereotype is a sort of cultural presumption of minority inferiority: blacks are lazy, Latinos are dirty or filthy, Muslims don’t respect human life. Those are stereotypes. Dog whistles are when politicians use coded language that try and trigger those beliefs. But they’re not the stereotypes themselves. And, it’s important, because dog whistling is not about bigotry. It’s about the manipulation of bigotry. It’s about the manipulation of stereotypes.

BILL MOYERS: So you make it clear in the book, that this is sort of an old sport, politicians communicating with small groups of impassioned voters and a kind of code that only kindred spirits understand. Nothing especially troubling about that. But it’s when it comes to the issue of race that you see a real injury.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: What makes race different? Two things. First, the message that politicians are trying to communicate, when they dog whistle in racial terms, is a message that runs directly counter to widely held values and norms of racial egalitarianism. The triumph of the civil rights movement is to teach us, to teach Americans that we’re all human, we’re all in this together. And so for a politician to come forward and say, I want your support because minorities are threatening and I believe that you ought to vote in solidarity with whites.

No one can say that expressly. That would be the end of a political career. So they use a dog whistle term and they say, I want you to vote in a way that cuts off food stamps and limits welfare and gets tough on crime and slams the border on illegal aliens. It’s a racial appeal, but it has to happen in code. That’s one difference.

The message that’s being communicated is a message that violates core, common moral norms. Second difference, yes, there are lots of different cultural provocations that are expressed in dog whistle terms. Race is one of those. But I want to also suggest it’s not just one of those, it’s the primary cultural provocation that has been used by conservatives over the last 50 years. Race is special because it does so much damage not only to people of color, but in the way it restructures our society as a whole.

BILL MOYERS: Give me a clear example of that.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: So we know Ronald Reagan used to talk about welfare queens. But he also had this other stump speech that he would give. He would speak to his audiences and he would say, I understand how frustrating it is for you when you’re standing in line at a grocery store waiting to buy hamburger and there’s some young fellow ahead of you buying T-bone steak with food stamps.

Now the first time he told that tale, it wasn’t some young fellow. He said, some “young buck.” And a young buck was a racially-coded term that stood for a strong African American man. And so that term, that moved from being a dog whistle to an outright racial provocation. Reagan backed off and he started talking about, some young fellow buying a T-bone steak with food stamps.

Think about the characters in this story. The first character is the person buying a T-bone steak with food stamps. And that’s conjuring the image of the lazy minority who’s strong, who could work, but who doesn’t want to work, and prefers to be on welfare. But the other image is the you in that story, who Reagan’s talking to. And the you is ostensibly the voter, the hard-working taxpayer, the law-abiding American. That voter, that hard-working American implicitly has a racial identity. And that’s white. So there you can see this racial narrative. You, Reagan is saying to white audiences, you’re being taken advantage of.

There’s a third character here. Government. It’s government ostensibly that is taking advantage of whites, that is taking their money through taxes, and then giving it to these undeserving minorities. So what did Reagan suggest? He suggested tax cuts. We shouldn’t, you shouldn’t have to pay taxes to a government that’s just taking your money and giving it to minorities. And indeed, what did he do? He enacted tax cuts. In the first year of his tax cuts, $164 billion went to American corporations. Over the 1980’s, the Reagan tax cuts transferred a trillion dollars to America’s top 1 percent. Yes, voters got the tax cuts they thought were aimed at cutting off undeserving minorities. But in fact, it was a politics that was showering money on the very richest Americans.

We have to understand the way in which something has fundamentally changed in American politics. We used to understand that the biggest threat in a political life was the power of concentrated money. The power of big money and of corporations to hijack the marketplace and to hijack government.

But now, Republicans for 50 years have been telling voters, the biggest threat in your life is that minorities are going to hijack government. That government has been taken over and now serves them. So when white voters vote against the government, they think they’re voting against minorities. But in fact, they’re voting to give over control of government back to the very rich, back to the big corporations.

BILL MOYERS: Mitt Romney, decent man. 47 percent.

MITT ROMNEY: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48 — he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.

BILL MOYERS: Was that a dog whistle?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I think it was. I think it was. And I’m so glad you raised this example, because it’s really striking. Here, all of a sudden, you have a presidential candidate who’s dismissing 47 percent of the country. What terms does he use? He says, these are people who are dependent on government, who refuse to take responsibility for themselves. Who want free stuff.

Now it’s a dog whistle on one level because he’s seeming to use the terms that are typically associated with minorities and he’s attaching them to half the country. So in a way, you’re getting the poor are being racialized. So even when they’re white, even when it’s half the country, and he’s talking about people who don’t pay income tax, he’s saying, these people are like minorities.

So that’s an important dog whistle. But more fundamentally, it’s a dog whistle in terms of this larger understanding of the relationship between people and government. He’s saying, if you need government help, you don’t deserve it. We should all be in this on our own. We should all be rugged individuals. If you make it, you should be celebrated and you don’t owe anybody anything. And if you fail, too bad for you, but we can’t worry about you.

And that’s incredible in the message. How could that message resonate? Now remember, he’s going to win a strong majority among whites. How could that message resonate with so many whites? It could only resonate because whites are steeped in the idea that the federal government is only helping minorities, it’s only helping losers, and they don’t want to understand themselves as losers.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve watched that video time and again, wondering if he really knew what he was saying. But is it possible he didn’t think of that as a dog whistle?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: He’s pretty clear that he thinks it’s the narrative that his audience wants to hear. I’d say one more thing about this.

After he loses the election, he gets on a conference call to explain to his major donors why he’d lost the election. And he gives them the same sort of analysis. He says, and he doesn’t understand that the L.A. Times is listening in, he says, Barack Obama promised to give things to people. He promised to give things to poor people, to young people, to black people, to Hispanic people, and that’s why we lost. It’s the same basic narrative. That a government that tries to take care of people is actually the enemy of the country and the biggest threat in our lives. And that, in particular, it’s threatening because it’s taking care of minorities.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: So when I say that people like George Wallace or Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan or Mitt Romney, that they’ve engaged in dog whistle racism, often the retort is, these are decent folks. They’re not bigots. And I want to say, I’ll grant that. I’m happy to grant that. So what? This isn’t about bigotry. This isn’t about hate-every-black-person animus.

Indeed, dog whistle politics doesn’t come out of animus at all. It doesn’t come out of some desire to hurt minorities. It comes out of a desire to win votes. And in that sense, I want to start using the term strategic racism. It’s racism as a strategy. It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s considered, it’s the decision to achieve one’s own ends, here winning votes, by stirring racial animosity. And that’s the decision that George Wallace made, that’s the decision that Ronald Reagan made, that’s the decision that Mitt Romney made.

BILL MOYERS: But we were talking in my office yesterday with the young people who had been reading your book. And they said, but wait a minute, if it really works, how did Barack Obama win two consecutive races for the presidency by fairly comfortable margins?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: So if you want to see how it works, think about the demographics of the Republican Party today. The Republican Party today is 90 percent white in terms of where it draws its support and it’s 98 percent white in terms of its elected officials. The country as a whole is almost is 65 percent white. You don’t achieve that level of racial homogeneity by accident.

It reflects 50 years of using race to mobilize voters. Or, again back to Barack Obama. Obama won, but not among whites. Among whites, Mitt Romney won three out of five white votes. Now you might just say, well, maybe he won among white men. That was one of the refrains. No, he won among white women too. Or you might say, well, maybe this is just a function of the deep South.

True, he did better in the South. But Mitt Romney won a majority of white voters in 46 out of 50 states. Or you might say, maybe this is just an older generation. Maybe this is going to die off. No. Mitt Romney won a majority of the white vote in every age cohort of white voters, including the very youngest. There is tremendous support in the white community for politicians who warn the public about the dangers confronting them by minorities. Who warn them about a federal government that is ostensibly by and for minorities.

Yes, Barack Obama won. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we don’t have a big problem in our country when 60 percent of whites are voting, are willing to vote for a politician who promises to slash taxes for the rich, to deregulate the economy, to slash social services, and indeed, to defund large parts of the federal government.

BILL MOYERS: So at one point, I tried to write a little summary of where I was in your book. And I wrote down, what he’s saying is that conservatives use the dog whistle to get the support of those still harboring racist sentiments and then convince them to go along with other policies that favor the rich even though those policies hurt everyone else, themselves included.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I think so. I think so. Now, I would say it slightly differently. I’m talking about what’s happening with white voters. But I’m not talking about all whites. I’m not talking about every person of European descent, let’s say. I’m talking about voters for whom being white is central to how they think of themselves and how they think of social relations. And this may be conscious, but more likely it’s unconscious.

BILL MOYERS: How can it be unconscious?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: It’s unconscious because of how race works in America. Okay, so why do we think in racial terms? There’s a big push to say, focus on cognition. Focus on the way we think. People think automatically in terms of group categories.

We tend to prefer in-group members and to disprefer out-group members. Fine. That’s hard-wired in human cognition. But in a society structured around race, race becomes the category through which we do a lot of our automatic thinking. And now here’s that last point. Our environment continually tells us that race is relevant.


IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Think about the suburbs versus the inner cities. Think about elite universities versus poor public schools. Those are racialized spaces. They are occupied alternately almost exclusively by whites, or instead by a heterogeneous mix of nonwhites. And that seems to confirm these deeper stereotypes about what race is and about how race really defines fundamentally different group characteristics.

All of this is operating at an unconscious level. And while race— there’s been a lot of racial progress and that has opened up room for elites like Barack Obama, like myself, in fact, racism has adapted in a way that continues to damage minority communities. I think about mass incarceration, I think about mass deportation. I think about the conditions in many poor areas of our country, rural and urban. But also, and here’s the important point, race has evolved in a way that has damaged the broad middle class in this country.

BILL MOYERS: That’s the subtitle of your book,” How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.”

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: And here’s the core point that I’m trying to get across. This hasn’t been just about minorities. Yes, minorities have been demonized. Yes, we’ve been told that minorities are criminals in a way that has led to a rapid expansion of the carceral system. Yes, we’ve been told they’re abusing welfare in a way that has led to massive cuts in welfare. That’s all true.

But at the same time, this demonization of minorities has led people to demonize the federal government. And indeed, to demonize government generally. So when we think about the shutdown of the government the House Republicans keep pursuing, why do they pursue that? Why would anybody support a shutting down of government?

Because government itself is now seen as a problem insofar as it’s seen as by and for minorities. So this is the beauty of dog whistle politics. On one level, it always allows plausible deniability. Because it’s always giving a reason that is seemingly race-neutral. And yet, on another level, it’s always triggering racial fears. Now I want to back up and say it’s possible that people have concerns that are not connected to racial politics and indeed aren’t strategic, that are completely genuine. I understand that.

And I also want to say, look, this is a complicated society. There’s lots going on. There’s going to be basic disagreements about the role of government, the role of public schools, the role of religion in society. I have all of that. I don’t want to be understood to be saying it’s always racial provocation, it’s always dog whistle politics. But acknowledging that there might be these other factors is not the same thing as establishing that dog whistle politics isn’t a powerful force in our society.

BILL MOYERS: And it works.

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: And it works. If we want to understand how we got to levels of wealth inequality we haven’t seen in a hundred years. If we want to understand what produced the Great Recession and why since the Great Recession 95 percent of the recovery has gone to the top 1 percent, we need to focus on how race is shaping contemporary politics.

BILL MOYERS: We’ll dig further into Dog Whistle Politics in our next episode with Ian Haney López. Here’s a preview:

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Democrats have understood, they understood even as early as 1970, race was going to be an effective wedge issue against them. And when the Democrats responded, they responded not by contesting that politics, but instead by embracing it. And this is part of the story of dog whistle politics. Republican shift right and the Democrats have tracked rightward, following them.

BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, you’ll want to go to our website,, for my web exclusive interview with Adolph Reed, author of the provocative cover story in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, copies of which are now being delivered to the Hillary Clinton camp and the White House in plain brown envelopes. Its title: “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.”

That’s at I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.

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