Many regard America as the land of freedom, opportunity and ethnic and racial diversity. Still, it can’t be denied that overt and systematic racism played and continues to play a major role in the story of our country.
“If you want to tell the story of race, start with Native American dispossession,” said Ian Haney López, during his keynote presentation at Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 6, at the Embassy Suites Downtown Denver Hotel. “All of this land was taken, not just from people, but from people who were turned into a ‘race’ to justify why it could all be taken.” He continued by saying, “Slavery was the great economic engine that turned America into a world power by the 20th century.”
After the abolishment of slavery and the end of the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and other policies systematically ensured that Blacks and other people of color would be kept “in their place” throughout much of America’s history — while much of White America thrived.
During his presentation, Haney López challenged participants to explore America’s past and how it fits within the current racially divided political climate. Using the “Socratic method” popular with law school professors, he ventured from the podium to ask members of the audience questions about race and class – provoking interesting insights from the audience.
A constitutional law scholar, and the Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley, Haney López’s most recent book, the acclaimed “Dog Whistle Politics,” showed how decades of subliminal racial language undermined support for programs and policies that benefit lower- and middle income Americans. Published in 2014, “Dog Whistle Politics” described how politicians began using subtly coded racially divisive terms such as “state’s rights” to justify racial discrimination back in 1964.
Since then, dog whistling was used during the Reagan era to demonize Blacks as criminals and welfare cheats. More recently, the racial lens has expanded to characterize Latinos as illegal aliens and Muslims as terrorists. At the same time, racial dog whistles form part of a larger culture war that includes attacks on sexual orientation and women, Haney López said.
Despite advancements in civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s, and the election of an African American president in 2008, politicians have continued used coded and strategic racism as a tool to persuade Whites to vote against their own self-interests – culminating with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, economic and social inequities continue to deepen and Whites themselves struggle with their own economic challenges, perpetuating feelings of division and resentment.
“Dog-whistle politics turned people against the idea that government could help people and convinced a lot of White people that most programs are handouts for underserving minorities, or wasted dollars on inner cities and infrastructure,” he said. “Instead, they convinced us that we should trust the marketplace, the job creators and the 1 percent [wealthiest Americans]. In fact, this is trickle-down economics and it doesn’t work.”
Even politicians who do not openly espouse racist views use strategic racism to appeal to voters. Haney López pointed out that in 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent half of his campaign advertising budget to tie President Barack Obama to welfare.
“That’s not bigotry, that’s cold, calculated political strategy,” Haney López said. “[Strategic racism] says in code that good White people built this country and it’s really ours. [The narrative says] we’re under attack and the government is our enemy, so we need to band together to use the government to seal the border. And because we can’t trust the government, we need to turn it over to the very rich.”
Haney López credits purveyors of strategic racism for building a sense of identity and belonging among White voters. Indeed, he points out, about 60 percent of White voters voted for Trump. He said while most White voters aren’t bigots, politicians have become masters at stoking their fear and resentment of a growing minority population for political gain.
Countering the dog-whistle
While champions of policies that promote economic inclusion and racial equity may be discouraged about the political climate, Haney López emphasized that strategic racism could be challenged if the narrative is changed to appeal to voters’ desire for inclusion, community and belonging. But he also emphasized that that message must incorporate discussions of race and class.
“Our story says ‘side with one another.’ We do have a common enemy: concentrated wealth. It’s the same enemy people wrestled with during the Great Depression – even leading back to the 14th century. The story of human progress involves pushing wealth and power downward and outward.”
Rather than stoking fear of people of color among White voters, Haney López suggested stoking fear of concentrations of wealth.
Currently, Haney López is working on the Race-Class Narrative Project, which is testing messaging among different groups of American voters, with an emphasis on how racism is hurting White people. He stressed that the messaging is still in development, but preliminary results have been encouraging.
“Once you create an opening on a worker-centered, class-centered message, then you can have conversations about White privilege and the multiple forms that racism takes, but you’ve got to lead with why Whites themselves have their own interests and why their children’s future depends on dealing with racism.”
Wrapping up his presentation, Haney López noted that he is completely revising “Dog Whistle Politics” to include an analysis of the 2016 election.He also offered the audience a four-page handout that details the nuances of racially coded messaging and how to respond to it.
“In short, the best response is to empower people and give them a sense of identity and belonging through a narrative that says, ‘side with one another, trust one another, and demand a government that works with all of us.’”
For more of Professor Haney López’s thoughts, read “Beyond Dog Whistle Politics,” a Q&A interview.
– By Bob Mook