Defeating “dog whistle politics”: A critical review

BY:Anita Waters| November 4, 2018
Defeating “dog whistle politics”:  A critical review


The author of Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Hany López, is a law professor at University of California Berkeley, and writes about race.  He prepared this paper on behalf of the AFL-CIO in 2016.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the metaphor and was afraid that it would turn into a psychological theory that is sometimes used to further the “colorblind racism” that he exposes later in the article.  But my fears were unfounded: López is pretty clear that structural or institutional racism is the more significant problem.

Race and Economic Jeopardy for All was published six months into Trump’s campaign, but before his nomination by the GOP.  The analysis in López’s article is intended to get discussion going and help people analyze the political discourse that they hear around them, especially in election periods, and to prepare union members to be critical consumers of election discourse.  If someone is aware of the concept of “dog whistle politics,” and hears Ron DeSantis saying that Floridians should not “monkey with” the way the GOP has run things in that state, it’s immediately recognizable for what it is.   Another example in my state of Ohio, is Mike DeWine, the GOP candidate for governor, accusing Richard Cordray of discrimination against women (one of those stock deflection moves of the GOP that López calls the kick), while DeWine himself promises aloud to take reproductive rights away from Ohio women.  It always seems to be Opposite Day with the GOP.

Dog Whistle politics is defined as using code words that, for example, don’t explicitly refer to race, but are fraught with racial meaning.  They are nothing new: López says that the tactic took off after the Civil Rights movement and were employed by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  They have been used enthusiastically especially by Republicans since the 1960s, and hitting its pinnacle with Trump. López argues that this kind of politics is the “gravest threat” to the labor movement and to democracy itself.

The author is very clear on one point that calls to mind a poster by Hugo Geller, (which many of us have in our homes or Facebook pages,) “Racism chains both.”  He stresses that racism harms both people of color and white workers.  Structural racism, more than individual racial prejudice, has caused the most extreme violence inflicted on black, brown and Asian communities and there is carry over to all workers.  For example, incarceration rates went up exponentially using these themes, and white workers were locked up alongside their brothers and sisters who are people of color.  When dog whistle politics targets unions themselves, all workers’ wages and working conditions are vulnerable.

In the section of the article on “What To Do,” two tasks are suggested.  The first is to convince whites to fight racism by broadening “racial conversations to show whites how their lives are degraded by racial politics, not just morally, but economically.” The second is to convince people of color to connect race to class in order to get whites on their side and be able to harness their political power.  Hence at every opportunity, the goal is to connect dog whistle politics with economic harm to the whole of the working class.

López identifies the GOP as the party that most indulges in dog whistle politics, which has resulted in drawing that party closer to being white-identified.  Since 1972, no Democratic candidate for president has won a majority of the white vote.  Today, 90% of GOP supporters are white, as are 98% of its elected officials.

Another good point that López makes is that white supremacist ideas serve the dual purpose of dividing the working class and demonizing government itself, if government is seen as a way of protecting labor rights, paying for public goods like education and infrastructure, and providing a safety net.   For instance, he talks about how Ronald Reagan used dog whistle politics to foment anger at African Americans receiving government assistance.   In López’ view, the end goal is not establishing white supremacy as such but weakening government and winning elections. In my view, the author is a little quick to say that the GOP isn’t really interested in establishing white supremacy.

López writes, “The combined message is venomous: government coddles nonwhites with welfare and slap-on-the-wrist policing; meanwhile, government victimized whites by taxing their paychecks and refusing to protect them from marauding minorities.”

López contends it wasn’t the discourse that hurt workers, rather, it was the policies that the discourse justified and rationalized that caused workers’ lives to take a downhill turn: weakened unions, cuts in government spending on education and infrastructure, etc.  New developments also explored in the article are: the Democrats’ use of dog whistle politics, and new targets like Muslims, immigrants, unions, and the whole working class.

Not all whites are susceptible to these frames of understanding, and some people of color are susceptible.  As the population becomes less white, instead of lessening dog whistle politics some white people are even more anxious.  One thing they’re doing is trying to expand who is recognized as white.   A case in point here is the lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American applicants.  The plaintiffs are Students for Fair Admissions, a group formed by a conservative activist against affirmative action, Edward Blum. The case is widely seen as a referendum on affirmative action.

Another way Trump is attempting to whiten the U.S. is by slamming shut doors once open to refugees and immigrants.

The second major section in López’s treatment of dog whistle politics addresses types of racism.  He distinguishes “malicious racism” from more subtle varieties.  If he were to rewrite this today, he’d probably recognize the renaissance of malicious racism coming straight from the White House.

The kind of racism López  believes is most important to dog whistle politics is what he calls “strategic racism,” which takes the focus off of the question of whether one individual is a racist or not a racist, and instead looks at deliberate use of racist discourse to justify or rationalize policies that take rights away from people of color and workers of all ethnic backgrounds and genders.

The most important part of the article addresses how to fight back.  López recommends several strategies.

First, unions need to ask themselves hard questions about racial composition in the organized and unorganized work forces, in the unions, and in union leadership. Is racism structured into our practices?

Second, convince whites to fight racism;

Third, convince people of color to link race and class;

Most importantly, build a new movement and new sense of ourselves as workers, with belonging, mutual respect and mutual care as the centers. “Labor must strive to give people a new, positive sense of themselves.” López sees unions as a main driver of this movement building, but they have to start seeing themselves as bigger than their own labor actions alone.  Unions can give the movement three key things: narratives, networks and resources.  This new labor-based movement has to demand government that serves people over profits.  A government that protects workers’ rights is the best López is going for.  He stops short of demanding fundamental change in the social structures that perpetuate oppression and exploitation of workers.

Can words and language really make a difference?  From our standpoint as communists, we recognize that what he is talking about here is what Marx refers to as class consciousness, developing a class for itself, with a sense of its own unity and its own potential power, and framing discourses can have an influence.

Another issue of relevance to us as communists is the fine line between keeping class analysis in the forefront while recognizing the importance of political action based on other foundations of unity, like race and gender.

Editor’s Note:  This presentation to the National Board of the Communist Party is based on an article entitled “Race and Economic Jeopardy for all: A framing paper for defeating dog whistle politics”.  It was written by Ian Haney López in  2016. Below find the audio version.  This posting has been updated.




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