“Law and Order” and Other Dog Whistles

Dog Whistle:  Coded or suggestive language in political messaging to garner support from a particular group without provoking opposition.  The concept is named for ultrasonic dog whistles used in shepherding.

Karl Marx famously declared:  “Religion…is the opium of the people.” 

Today that label might be applied to sports fandom, celebrities, Facebook, Twitter or other entertainment.

What I’m observing lately is that the obsessive desire for “law and order” might also function as an opium.  That desire springs from many innate fears:

  • My property is threatened.
  • My family is threatened.
  • My control is threatened.
  • My lifestyle is threatened.
  • My life is threatened.

To quell these fears we seek assurance of safety, of tranquility, of some semblance of “peace,” peace understood as “no disturbances in my orbit.” 

And since we’ve been brainwashed to perceive People of Color as dangerous, we seek to be saved from the impending uprising, to be spared their invasion of our home turf, our schools, our neighborhoods.  We don’t claim these fears and these desires outright.  That would be gauche.  Not socially acceptable. Might reveal our implicit racial bias.  And so we suppress those motivations in public.  But inwardly:

  • Protection of property becomes more important than protection of people (e.g., Black Lives Matter protestors).
  • We support suppression of the “rioting” and fail to distinguish it from passionate expression.
  • We fervently wish the protestors would tamp down the rhetoric and discipline their ranks.
  • We turn a blind eye toward police aggression.  We accept that as necessary, given the “violence.” 
  • We become suckers for an assurance of tranquility in our homes and towns.

I’m convinced that we harbor an innate, skewed sense of what true racial justice and equity might cost us.  We envision the social awkwardness of mixing with perceived “others,” lowered home values, less safe streets, and the financial loss we’ll incur when reparations are collected.

So when standing in front of the lever, or filling in the circles, we may vote to preserve life as we know it.  We may vote for safety over justice.  There is much speculation just now about how many vocally “liberal” voters will surreptitiously opt for “law and order” this year, swallowing the painkiller, the opium.  We might justify this choice and even validate ourselves by feeling bad about the purported need to do so.

Savvy politicians are not only aware of this latent racism in us but have become masterful at locating and holding down those buttons.  The strategy was honed to a craft by Lee Atwater, Nixon’s political advisor, demonstrated by this now infamous utterance caught on tape: 

“Here’s how .….you handle the race thing: You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘n…..r, n…..r, n…..r.By 1968 you can’t say ‘n…..r’, that hurts you, it backfires.  So you say stuff like ‘forced busing, states rights,’ and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

But the political strategy of tweaking racial animus continues today, and can even be perceived as a central theme, a nearly transparent platform that promises:  “Not to worry;  I’ll make sure we keep those people in their place.”  A politician can simply toss out some of the latent fears, and we’re hooked, e.g.:  “It will be the end of the suburbs as we know them!”  You know to whom I’m referring here, without explicitly mentioning any name.  And that’s exactly how dog whistles work too!

This tactic of subliminal racial messaging is hardly limited to one person or one party, however.  Democratic candidate Joe Biden still struggles to distance himself from some of the most blatant racial dog-whistling imaginable in his vigorous promotion of the disastrous 1994 crime bill that spurred mass incarceration of People of Color.

Consider these phrases that we hear uttered by Democratic politicians striving to assure their constituents that they won’t cave to the socialist wing of the party:

  • “The heartland”
  • “Everyday people”
  • “Our union friends”
  • “Free stuff doesn’t play in the Midwest”
  • “Joe Six Pack”

What these have in common with the “law and order” line of whistles is a subliminal racist message.  We don’t even have to understand the racist linkage for the whistles to work.   In fact, they’re intended to work surreptitiously, so that we aren’t even conscious that we’ve been swayed.  Politicians are using coded language to “manipulate people” into making decisions they wouldn’t normally be “morally comfortable with” according to Jennifer Saul, a political language specialist (BBC News). 

Thus, the Republicans attempt to assure us white folks with the unspoken message that they will save us from the hordes of Black people who will invade our suburbs, while the Democrats seek to assure us that they’re not going to give away the store to “those” freeloaders.

Again, the operative fears here are deeply embedded and innate.  They lurk below the conscious level, like implicit bias, so we may be quite unaware when that Pavlovian response to fear has been triggered. 

And so, friends, we need to pay attention.  Pay very careful attention.  We need to tune in to the messaging at a particular tonal level, train our minds to hear beyond the words, to perceive the intent of the message, and to note our own response, particularly when someone is calling forth our own racial biases.

Already voted?  Well, to be sure, this need for alertness will not end with this election!


The Journal of Southern Religion

“Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans”  Reading Religion

Dog whistle Politics:  How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney Lopez

“The Democrats’ New Favorite Dog Whistle:  Invoking the ‘Heartland’”  In These Times

“Former Senate Democrat gets accused of ‘racial dog whistles’ when she talks about how her party is leaning too far left”  MarketWatch

“Will Biden’s Dog Whistles for Racism Catch Up with Him?”  Includes a sampling of Biden’s racist whistling in 1994.  Common Dreams

“Least Racist is STILL racist”  Blog post by James Mulholland

15 thoughts on ““Law and Order” and Other Dog Whistles”

  1. Thanks for demystifying the term “dog whistle” for readers. It’s very much present in our politics, including the soon-to-be former president. Many of the dog whistles you mention here are actually ones I recognize, ideas such as “law and order” and “they’re going after the suburbs.”


  2. I think we have just entered a new era where mistakes can be forgiven by the offended if acknowledgement of the mistakes is made by the offender. Thanks for the post Frank. It has given a name to terms that I always questioned but didn’t know why.


    1. Very true, thanks for contributing. I will say I’m encouraged by the number of Black people I know, leaders especially, to hear that even those who have been in the struggle for years have a sense that this is a new and potent moment.


  3. I have always been pretty sure racism exists in both parties since they are largely made up of older white rich men, (no offense to those readers of this blog who fit some or all of those characteristics.) I am just coming into the knowledge of my own ignorance and racist tendencies. This is an eye opening post.
    I have not voted yet and was sure of whom I would vote for. I am not sure anymore. Is it just a matter of who is the least racist, who has the most character, who is the most pro-life, I am not sure I know anymore.
    When I was about to vote in my first election, I was so excited to be an American and tried very hard to be an informed voter. Sometimes, I was not informed enough and was disappointed with my vote. I consider myself to be a compassionate, intelligent woman, but I do not feel this way for this election. Social Media has clouded my ability to know who is telling the truth and who is not, what the facts are, and what the fake is.
    I just don’t know which bubbles to fill in when I go to the polls. I can understand why people choose not to vote when there seems to be no clear way to know who is the better choice for our country now, at this time.


    1. Melissa, how about some simple questions to help the discernment – e.g.: Who do you believe will do the most good? Who will lead toward the kind of country you want to live in? And for the person of faith I know you to be, who would lead like the beatitudes really matter?


  4. In last week’s presidential debate Biden apologized for his part in that 1994 crime bill and spelled out some of his growth in anti racist action which the candidate he is running against tried to slime as equivocal to his own views which they are not. Trump has never apologized for his condemnation of the Central park 5 but instead even after they were legally released as innocent and another was identified as the killer he called for the Central Pk 5 to continue to be condemned + many outrageous racist words and actions.


    1. Agreed, Deni. The scales are hardly balanced. Still, I believe it’s important to be honest about some past views, and as blatant as they were, it would be hard to believe some of that attitude isn’t still present, even if he has “grown.” And, I believe those current Democratic whistles, as well as Joe’s history, are what lead to at least some pause for some People of Color. Their memory and their hearing are far more acute than ours!


  5. I recognized the dog whistle, “law and order” chants and tactics of Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush but, didn’t detect the same or similar message in “The heartland” or “Our union friends”. Thank you for opening my eyes!


    1. Thanks Tom. I needed to have my eyes opened to them first. And if you look at the article re Biden in the Resources, you’ll see the blatantly racist comments he was making in ’94. I believe a lot of People of Color remember that, because it registered with them at the time.


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