Beyond ‘Dog Whistle Politics’: An Interview with Ian Haney López, Part 1

Beyond ‘Dog Whistle Politics’: An Interview with Ian Haney López, Part 1

Ian Haney López is regarded as one of the nation’s leading thinkers on how racism has evolved in the United States since the civil rights era.

Currently a professor of law at the University of California Berkeley, he is the author of three books, most notably “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” which showed how decades of subliminal racial language have systematically dismantled programs and policies that benefit lower- and middle-income Americans. His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times.

Haney López will discuss his work and how to rebuild support for a government that helps people realize their full potential and achieve enduring economic security at Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 6 at Embassy Suites Denver Downtown Convention Center.

Recently, CCLP Communications Director Bob Mook talked to Haney López about the themes explored in “Dog Whistle Politics” and where to go from here. This is Part One of a three-part Q&A.

The views expressed by Haney López don’t necessarily express those of Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which addresses poverty-related issues through research, advocacy, litigation and education.

CCLP: Why do you think there was a resurgence of interest in your book, “Dog Whistle Politics” after the elections?

Ian Haney López: The book provides a framework to understand what happened to our country. It takes a larger historical perspective. It’s not just about understanding 2016 or growing political polarization, but about what we’ve done over the past 60 years and how it fits within the arc of two of the most pressing problems the country faces. One: how we can move from racial oppression and toward racial equality. Two: how we as a democratic and capitalistic society deal with the distribution of wealth—whether wealth is fairly distributed or concentrated in the hands of a few.

These are two of the most pressing questions the country faces. It’s something we’ve struggled with throughout the 20th Century. “Dog Whistle Politics” as a book explores the relationship between those two questions over the last 50 years. In this context, the 2016 election epitomized two of the worst trends: Increasing racial hatred and increasing concentrations of wealth in the billionaire class.

CCLP: You point out throughout the book that neither Democrats nor Republicans have been above dog-whistle messaging. How have you seen that play out since the publication of the book?

IHL: Clearly, Donald Trump took the Republican strategy and amped it up. Indeed, he used it against the Republican party itself. He out dog-whistled the dog-whistle party. And it turned out that (mainstream) Republicans did not have an adequate response. They could hardly call Trump out for race-baiting. So he ran the table on the “establishment” Republican candidates by being even more of an aggressive racial demagogue than anyone else in a party that has built its identity around White anxiety.

On the Democratic side, I don’t think you see dog-whistling in the sense of purposeful efforts to manipulate people racially. What you do see is a repeat of purposeful racial evasion. This is something that Democrats have been doing for 50 years. In the wake of Trump’s election, it seems they’ve doubled down on it.

The politics of racial evasion has two components: One is the recognition that race is being used against you. Two is the conclusion that it’s being used so effectively that you have to deny that race is actually playing any role. The end result is a public silence about the role of race.

You can see that this is where the Democratic party has settled in the recent rollout of their “Better Deal.” A Better Deal is a collection of different policy proposals that hammer away at the idea of economic populism and concern for the working class. Yet, it’s studiously silent on questions of racial division, and social divisions more generally. At a time when Donald Trump is tweeting out about a ban on transgender people in the military and lecturing the country about the police being too nice on “thugs,” or railing against the savagery of immigrant killers, the Democrats are saying they can respond effectively by talking about economic policies alone.

This silence about race is purposeful. They know that race is a weapon in politics today, but they’ve also concluded that it is such an effective weapon that they don’t dare mention race because they fear if they do mention race, it will turn away the White working class voters that they seek to recapture. The result is a Democratic response that talks only in the dry language of public policy without addressing the fire that’s raging through American society of fear and division and people feeling threatened.

The Democrats have made a decision that they’re going to ignore racial dynamics. It’s not dog-whistle politics per se, but it’s definitely part of the pattern of dog whistling in which the right wing manipulates racial anxiety while liberals respond with racial evasion.

CCLP: It sounds like the Democrats are almost in a position that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t in regards to addressing race. Is it more complicated than that?

IHL: The Democrats definitely think they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That’s the conclusion they’ve reached. But that rests on a misunderstanding of how race is working in society and how to engage with it. Race is being used as a divide-and-conquer weapon. And once you’ve seen that clearly, it opens up the possibility of addressing race as a divide-and-conquer weapon.

Instead, progressives too often mistakenly presume that race only affects communities of color. Then they worry that if they address racism, doing so will antagonize Whites who’ve been conditioned to believe that Democrats care more about communities of color than they care about White voters.

That’s where the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t trap comes from. The root of that trap is the mistaken belief that race is only a concern for communities of color. This dramatically misunderstands the harm that racism is doing. Racism is being used as a divide-and-conquer weapon by the very rich against the rest of us. And with that understanding of racism, it becomes immediately apparent that you must have a conversation about race that is targeted toward Whites and that explains how racism hurts their families.

– By Bob Mook

Want to hear more from Professor López? Join us for breakfast and conversation with him on Oct. 6 at CCLP’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast.