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!
“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
“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