Even as late as the 1950s, it was commonplace for American politicians to lace public discourse with racial epithets. While direct references to race make relatively few appearances today, it’s clear that inciting racial division has hardly disappeared from politics.
In his book published earlier this year, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, outlines how politicians and plutocrats attract white votes by deploying veiled racial messages.
Here are six examples of code words, some mentioned by Lopez and others not, but all used in American politics to publicly transmit racial messages.
Lopez notes that welfare programs were broadly supported during the New Deal era when it was accepted that white Americans could face hardships in their lives that sometimes required government assistance.
Fast-forward to the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson demanded a racial justice component to public assistance. “Then it becomes possible for conservatives to start painting welfare as a transfer of wealth to minorities,” says Lopez.
Remember those speeches by President Ronald Reagan about “welfare queens”? Today, says Lopez, we hear “food stamps” used similarly.
Fox News contributor Juan Williams wrote in a 2012 column published in The Hill:
“The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any responsibility for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are ‘entitlement society’ — as used by Mitt Romney — and ‘poor work ethic’ and ‘food stamp president’ — as used by Newt Gingrich.”
Although these phrases are synonyms for the concept of “racial neutrality,” they have been employed politically as a disarming mechanism against those who have historically suffered from racial oppression.
“Colorblindness” or the notion of a “post-racial society” allows whites to ignore the disadvantages of the non-white population and reject policies or programs that seek to address racial inequality, such as affirmative action.
In his book, Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (2012), author Christopher Doob writes that white people believe they live in a world in which “racial privilege no longer exists, but their behavior supports radicalized structures and practices.”
Western Civilization, Third World
The terms “Western civilization” and “Third World” are code words used to separate white-populated and usually wealthy regions of the world from the non-white and supposedly poorer nations.
Today, most people think a “Third World” country refers to one that is primitive, underdeveloped or poor. In fact, a Third World country was originally defined as a nation that was not governed under the economic systems of capitalism (First World) or communism (Second World).
By the end of the 1960s, the Third World became the code word for non-white-governed countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, while the First World equated to Western civilization or “the white race,” according to Dictionary of Human Geography (5th Edition).
Historically, some European countries were considered Third World and a few were and continue to be prosperous, including Switzerland and Austria. However today, most people do not associate any European country with the Third World despite their economic structure or level of wealth.
Phrases like “the American way,” “American values,” “our way of life, and “real Americans” have been used as code words to mean white rural America.
After she was tapped as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin repeatedly invoked this concept of “the real America” at rallies where throngs of rural, whites were calling Barack Obama the N-word. Conservative television commentator Glenn Beck blathered on and on about his fears for America’s future, real America, socialism.
Writer, journalist, and cultural critic Toure wrote in a September 2012 Time article, “There’s also the cornucopia of terms and concepts created to de-Americanize Barack Obama, from calling him ‘Muslim’ or ‘socialist’ to Romney surrogates like John Sununu saying things like, ‘I wish this president would learn how to be an American.’ There is also a return to ‘birtherism,’ with Romney recently joking, ‘Nobody’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.’ The subtext of all this is: Obama, like other Blacks, is not one of “us.” He is other.’”
Thug, Law and Order, Inner City
Last year outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman noted that the word “thug” has become an “accepted way of calling somebody the N-word.”
From Sherman to Trayvon Martin to President Obama to the everyday Black man, the use of the word “thug” has become a subtle way of insulting African-American males by connecting them to intrinsic criminality. “Law and order,” and “inner city” are also code words used to evoke this stereotype.
After the tragic death of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, defenders of his killer, George Zimmerman, were quick to label Martin a “dangerous thug” for his ordinary adolescent behavior, like cursing or smoking marijuana.
“Thug” is one of the favored insults directed at Obama, who was called a “Chicago thug” by right wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann described Obama’s political behavior as “thuggery,” and former Bush Senior Advisor Karl Rove told Fox News that the president looks like “some kind of political thug” after comments Obama made about the Supreme Court.
In Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (2011), author Paul Kivel wrote: “Deciding which immigrants are legal or illegal has historically been a part of America’s racially based immigration policies.” Europeans have always been welcomed whereas Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans have been excluded and discouraged.
“Illegal alien,” says Lopez, is a perfect dog whistle, triggering fears of immigrants as criminals who take advantage of welfare programs and disrespect the American way of life. But somehow the concerns are always pointed at the Mexican border instead of the border shared with Canada.