Wednesday, August 29, 2012

5 Moments in Racial Dogwhistling History (of the last 30 years or so)

Inexorably during the last 30 years or so, someone starts doing the math, and realizes that white people make up a hefty percentage of the electorate. Politicians inevitably try to appeal to this important demographic, some by using soaring rhetoric and an appeal to better nature. Others, well, not so much. Since it is no longer acceptable to pitch things to people in blatantly racial terms, politicians in recent times have tried to craft workarounds, dog whistles if you will, to appeal to certain demographics, without having to state out loud exactly what they are trying to say. Follow me below the fold to get 5 modern examples of racial dog whistling...

1. Sister Souljah- this was a dog whistle so blatant, it has now entered the political jargon. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton, seeking to distance himself from the perception that he was beholden to African-American interests in general, and Jesse Jackson in particular, criticized a relatively unknown supporter of Jackson’s, who had stated in response to the LA riots that “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton noted that if the terms black and white were reversed, “it could have been David Duke giving that speech. Clinton came under fire by Jackson for that speech, Clinton showed that he was not beholden to the black population, and “having a Sister Soulja moment” entered the lexicon. It's now used as general term for when a politician purports to reject the extremists in his own base. Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment did not cause even the slightest dent in his popularity with black people, the epitome of a successful dog whistle.

2. Hands/Jesse Helms- In 1990, Jesse Helms was running for re-election in the Senate, and losing to Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African-American. The Helms campaign came up with this thirty-second spot, which showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a letter. The voice-over solemnly intones, “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a less qualified minority." After this ad aired, Helms went on to overtake Gantt in the polls, and win the election.

3. Willie Horton- This was an ad in support of George HW Bush, in 1988. This ad purported to criticize Bush’s rival, Michael Dukakis for being lax on crime. The ad features Horton, who while on furlough in Massachusetts went on a robbing, raping, and stabbing spree in Maryland. Critics noted that the ad seemed to rely on racial stereotypes and stoked white people’s fears regarding black crime. Lee Atwater, the architect behind the Horton spot, apologized on his deathbed for the cruelty and racism behind the ad.


4. Welfare queen- The phrase entered the popular imagination from a stump speech of Ronald Reagan’s in 1976. In this speech, he purported to tell the tale of a woman arrested for welfare fraud in Chicago’s South Side (a black enclave). In Reagan’s telling, this woman“… has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” The fact that this woman never existed seemed not to bother him in the least.

5. Welfare queen 2012-I will spend a little time with this, as it is still ongoing, and as you can see from the above examples, most racial dog whistles don’t get acknowledged as such until long afterwards. Romney needs 61 percent of the white vote, according to a recent analysis by the National Journal. To get to that magic number, Romney must capture an historic number of white voters, in a performance that would rival Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. And it’s starting to show.

Romney has rolled out a recent series of attack ads targeting the Obama administration’s plans to allow states to come up with more innovative strategies to move welfare recipients from receiving aid and into work. Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, asked repeatedly for a waiver so that he could implement such plans. Despite this line of attack being debunked repeatedly by critics of all stripes as seriously misleading, 5 out the 12 new ads Romney has rolled out center on welfare (in contrast, introducing VP candidate Paul Ryan is only one ad, healthcare is only 4 ads, even the economy is one ad). So why such a heavy emphasis on welfare?

Political scientist Michael Tesler partnered with the YouGov online polling service to test the question on 1,000 respondents. All the participants answered a standard set of questions that researchers use to identify levels of racial resentment. Half were then shown Romney’s ad. The others weren’t. Then both groups were asked whether Obama and Romney’s policies would help or hurt the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, African Americans and white Americans.

“Among those who saw it,” reports Tesler, “racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle class and African Americans. Moreover, seeing the ad did not activate other attitudes, such as party or ideological self-identification. It only primed racial resentment.”

This is where things get tricky. Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.

Romney is currently polling at 0% support among the African-American community(Obama is at 94%, down a percentage point from 2008).

An ending question, can a racial dog whistle be fun, rather than just a straight-up attack?  This, I think, is a racial dog whistle from Obama, though it very well may just be an age dog whistle.


  1. I know I'm not the target audience, but this stuff makes me furious. And I know we had a back and forth about this already, but it wasn't in public, so we can do it again for public consumption :-):

    Are there really that many white racists? How could that be? Is it just that there are people who choose not to unpack racial resentment and would rather pretend that is not what Romney and crew are doing? How could anybody miss that, if it is not a willful act of self-deception?

  2. And also, the dirt-shoulder brush was both a successful racial and youth dog whistle, I think. I think way back with our first dog whistle post in May - - that the Rs were trying to turn that "cool" part of Obama against him in a dog whistle to older white folks (I thought then particularly men, now I think maybe particularly women).

  3. Why aren't you the target audience? But anyway, do I think that there are that many racists out there? As I've said last night, yes, I believe there are. Not the active KKK joining, lynching, sign-waving types, but the run-of-the-mill, "I don't care what they do, but I don't want my daughter marrying one" types. And an even larger percentage of people who don't care either way, but are swayed by those around them, and will just do what those people do. Which never really gets examined in depth, until after the moment has already passed. But the politics of racial resentment lives on. I'm not sure, as the percentage of the white population goes down, whether that will increase or decrease. I'm thinking it will decrease, Romney's attacks have found some traction within a certain segment, but many others have stepped up to the plate to denounce it. I guess we will see.

  4. And also, the dirt-shoulder brush was both a successful racial and youth dog whistle, I think. I think way back with our first dog whistle post in May - - that the Rs were trying to turn that "cool" part of Obama against him in a dog whistle to older white folks (I thought then particularly men, now I think maybe particularly women).

    It is interesting to me how Obama's opponents keep trying to use the "cool" image of Obama against him. Try as I might, I don't see how depicting someone as cool is going to lose him votes. I see that they are trying to link his coolness with a certain sense of blackness, but it just doesn't work. "Don't vote for that guy, he's too popular, and everyone likes him too much!" It kinda flies in the face of human nature.

  5. I'm not the target audience because A) faithful Democrat, and B) pretty sure I don't have any secret racial rage. How many of those people, the passively-racist or NIMBY racists do you think there are? Do you think they don't know about it? Or is racism not as big a deal to other people as it is to me?

    Well, I think the real subtext on the "cool" thing is that they want to say Obama is overly arrogant. So that the anticipated/desired response is "that jackass, he thinks he's so great, but he's not." Then you end up disliking the person. Obama does come off as snooty, so this type of attack is an attempt to build on that feeling. Of course, when you put him up against Romney, Obama looks humble and down-to-earth. Scrappy even.

  6. Oh, I see, I read it wrong. Target audience for secret dog whistles, not the article. I got it. Obama is arrogant. You have to have a huge dollop of arrogance to run for President. Does he have more than the usual for that subsrt? I haven't seen evidence of that.

    I don't think your run-of-the-mill racism is a very big deal to most white people. Big Racism, with a capital R, yes, but your average racist comments, jokes, and attitudes, not so much. I wouldn't know directly of course, but that is the general sense that I get.

  7. I'm similarly handicapped. If I had to hazard a guess I'd say that one of the reasons the birtherism thing and the tea party thing happen is that people are directing what is actually racism into some other category. For example, calling Obama a Muslim or a Communist when neither is true makes it seem more palatable? But maybe people who believe that stuff are comfortable with being racist. I just don't know.

  8. I don't think it is that people are comfortable with being racist (well, maybe a few are). I suspect the real issue is that most of them genuinely don't realize they are racist. Very few people actually, consciously believe minorities are inferior to whites. Instead, they have all sorts of unexamined assumptions and subconscious judgments that add up to racism. Kind of like my father, who had all sorts of ideas about the role of women in general, but which did not generally affect how he was with the individual women he knew and worked with (and lived with :> ). Actually, he also had some pretty racist assumptions (against both whites and blacks, he was latino), but again, they did not really play a role in how he interacted with people on an individual basis.

  9. I could see that, I certainly feel like there is an extent to which those assumptions can particularly fester when we do this self-segregation, because then people don't know any different. I remember my grandfather talking about how his ideas changed when he served in an integrated unit in WWII.

  10. ARG. And now there's this lovely quote: "Romney said her 'importance in speaking out is making sure that those coalitions,' referring to women and Hispanic voters, 'that would naturally be voting for another party wake up and say, You'd better really look at the issues this time. You'd better really look at your future and figure out who's going to be the guy that's going to make it better for you and your children, and there is only one answer,' Mrs. Romney said, giving a harsher pitch than we usually hear from the woman who wants to be the next first lady. 'It really is a message that would resonate well if they could just get past some of their biases that have been there from the Democratic machines that have made us look like we don't care about this community,' Romney said. 'And that is not true. We very much care about you and your families and the opportunities that are there for you and your families.'" - - Yes, that's right. It's WOMEN'S and HISPANICS' biases we are witnessing in the current political conversation. That explains so much. Also, can she please tell me where this Democratic Machine is and how to turn it on? We could use it right about now.