When Paul Ryan talked about a “real culture problem” in “our inner cities in particular”, he wasn’t the first American politician to be slammed for using racially coded language to get a point across.
Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, says it’s not just the promotion of old-fashioned racial stereotypes that we need to worry about. Rather, he argues, it’s the manipulation of racism in service of very specific goals.
López’s book focuses on elected officials’ ability to tap into bias without being explicit about it, all to gain support for what he calls “regressive policies,” which, ironically, hurt working-class white people as much as people of color.
“This sort of coded speech operates on two levels,” he says. “It triggers racial anxiety and it allows plausible deniability by crafting language that lets the speaker deny that he’s even thinking about race.”
It’s disturbing and frustrating, and more than ever, it’s what racism sounds like and how politics works.
To understand how outright racist language has gone underground but is working as hard as ever to drum up support for conservative policies, the author says, you just have to look at this list of sneaky code words and phrases that politicians throughout history have loved, and what they really mean:
Ryan’s statement, which he later said he regretted, is a perfect example of the way public expressions of racism have evolved, says López. “You can’t publicly say black people don’t like to work, but you can say there’s an inner-city culture in which generations of people don’t value work.” The goal here, he says, isn’t to demonize minorities—far from it—but to demonize a government that helps the middle class (and if the people Americans have historically associated with inner cities have to be used in the process, so be it).
Totally innocent and nonracial, right? Not so much. López says we first heard this from Barry Goldwater, who was running on a very unpopular platform critical of the New Deal, during the 1964 presidential election. “He makes the critical decision to use coded racial appeals, trying to take advantage of rising racial anxiety in the face of the civil rights movement,” says López. In other words, while “states’ rights” is a pretty racially neutral issue, you just have to look at what was happening at the moment to realize that everyone knew it translated to the right of states to resist federal mandates to integrate schools and society.
López calls this phrase, which, on its face, was racially neutral, “the Northern analog of states’ rights,” which “allowed the North to express fevered opposition to integration without having to mention race.” After all, kids had been bused to school for quite a while. It was only when the plan took on a racial edge that it became controversial. Politicians didn’t have to say that outright, though—they simply dropped in the phrase to trigger resentment and gain supporters.
Dog-whistle politics is partly about demonizing people of color, but it’s also about demonizing government in a way that helps the very rich, says López. So, when Ronald Regan said “cut taxes,” what he was communicating to the middle class was, “so your taxes won’t be wasted on minorities.” A key Reagan operative admitted as much in an interview quoted in Lopez’s book, saying, ” ‘We want to cut taxes’ … is a whole lot more abstract than, ‘Nigger, nigger.’ ” It continues to be more abstract, and it continues to work.
Law and Order
This phrase, says López, is a way to draw on an image of minorities as criminals that was used by both Reagan and Clinton. He points to an inverse relationship in Congress between conversations about civil rights and criminal law enforcement. “What you see in the 1960s is that opposition to civil rights becomes ‘what we really need is law and order, to crack down’. ” Of course, the latter is less controversial and, at least on its surface, avoids the issue of race.
Welfare, says López, was broadly supported during the New Deal era when it was understood that people could face hardships in their lives that sometimes required government assistance, and, in fact, was purposely limited to white recipients. In this context, it wasn’t heavily stigmatized. Fast-forward to the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson made it clear that he wanted it to have a racial-justice component. “Then it becomes possible for conservatives to start painting welfare as a transfer of wealth to minorities,” says Lopez. Remember those Reagan speeches about welfare queens? Today, says López, we hear “food stamps” used similarly.
We first started hearing about this alleged threat to American justice in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, says López, when the Bush administration became intent on linking the war in Iraq to hijackers who were from Saudi Arabia. “To get there, you convince America that this threat is internal as well—new brown immigrants who are threatening the heartland,” he says. “A prime example is Kansas prohibiting courts from drawing on Shariah law—it’s not a threat at all. The point isn’t the reality; it’s the racial frame. The point is, these brown Muslim people are infiltrating our country, so be afraid, and vote for politicians who will support the right wing.”
This phrase, says López, is a perfect dog whistle, which triggers fears about immigrants as criminals, taking advantage of welfare and disrespecting the American way of life. But somehow the concerns are always pointed at the Mexican border instead of the one we share with Canada. “It’s racial rhetoric about Latinos that is now being couched in this seemingly racially neutral language, and harnessed to support fear to get people to support conservative policies.”
States Rights: This is often used with issues that conservatives want to throw hissy fits over (gun rights, marriage equality, slavery, etc.) and don’t want the silly federal government to pull its trump card — the Supremacy Clause.
Liberal Media: Any media outlet that isn’t Fox News and won’t cater to scripted questions and answers. Otherwise known as fact-based, honest reporting.
Gotcha Questions: You’ll hear this one a lot when Republicans are asked questions they don’t know the answer to, or know that an honest answer will hurt their image. It basically means they’re embarrassed they just got caught being an idiot.
Judicial Activism: Any time the Supreme Court sides with the Constitution over conservatives’ bigoted opinions on how they think things should be run (ex. Obamacare, marriage equality, etc.).
Playing the Race Card: When they know they’re racist, but want to blame whoever calls them out on it.
Entitlements: Programs citizens have paid for and are, in fact, entitled to (Social Security, Medicare), but the GOP wants taxpayers to think they’re somehow getting ripped off by the poor.
Right-to-Life: Control over the medical decisions of women. This phrase has nothing to do with “life” because the same people who claim to be “pro-life” are also pro-war, pro-death penalty and anti-taking care of people who are already born.
War on Terror: Sending troops to influence nations with an abundance of oil.
Liberty: To have the ability to control others, but still keep all of their own rights intact.
Freedom: To make sure Wall Street and the wealthy are taken care of and guilt-free in all of our economic woes. Basically, as Republicans seek to regulate women, gays and minorities, they seek “freedom” for corporations and big banks to flush our economy down the toilet while reaping all the rewards for themselves.
Socialist: Any words that come out of a Democrat’s mouth. The actual meaning is neither here nor there.
Capitalist: BFF who writes checks to make policy that will make them lots and lots of money. This has nothing to do with actual capitalism, which should be ethically regulated to keep things fair for all.
Obamacare: The scary word used to deflect from increased accessibility to private health care.
Democrat Party: This is used to get under the skin of liberals everywhere – and it does, because it’s simply bad grammar.
War on Religion: The hissy fit thrown when conservative Christians don’t get their way dictating the lives of others.
Religious Freedom: The thinking that you have the freedom to control others via your religion.
Job Creators: The very wealthy. This is the one of the oldest tricks in the books for the GOP. If they call all the rich on top “job creators” their imbecilic base will vote for them. When, in fact, if tax breaks for the very wealthy worked we’d have had an abundant economy at the end of President George W. Bush’s second term instead of the biggest recession since the Great Depression. (Hint: it’s a lie. Growth happens from the bottom up like everything else. Get money in the hands of those who need it most and the wealth spreads upwards. It doesn’t work the other way around, as has been proven time and time again. What we need to do is raise wages.)
Big Government: Republicans LOVE actual big government. Don’t believe it? Look at the Defense budget. Look at their love for controlling the lives of women and the LGBT community. Look at how much they want to spend on subsidies for the already wealthy. “Big Government” is another deflection word to make their voting base scared that the United States wants to control every aspect of their lives. When, in fact, that is what the GOP has been trying to do for decades. Democrats, on the other hand, don’t want “big government” they want functional government. However, that doesn’t sound nearly as scary.
“Taxes are stealing”: This is used to make people hate the government. Here’s the thing, without taxes how are we going to pay for things like say, the military, or oil subsidies, or $8 million/day in aid to Israel. It’s not that Republicans hate taxes, they hate taxes they themselves and their wealthy cronies have to pay for. They’d LOVE to make a regressive flat tax that would tax the poor and middle class more and the wealthy less. They’d LOVE to make sure 99% of the nation is paying for all the things the 1% is dictating through policy lobbyists. Republicans don’t hate taxes. No no. They hate actually being the ones to pay them. In an ideal society, we’d have a progressive structure that made it so more money stays in the hands of the less fortunate so they can stimulate the economy from the bottom up. Taxes should also be used for fixing infrastructure, education, health care etc. You know, things that actually benefit the taxpayers, not just the very wealthy.
Patriot: Warrior for the 1%.
Tax and Spend: The scary phrase they use with the GOP base who haven’t quite caught on to how things really work. The government has taxes so they can fund government. Tax and spend. Just like “get paid and spend.”
Elitist: Someone who had the audacity to learn the facts and repeat them.
Class Warfare: This is used any time someone points out that Republicans are hating on the poor in favor of benefiting the wealthy. “Stop with the class warfare.” Oh, you mean telling it like it is?
Family Values: The phrase used any time they want to be bigoted assholes and get away with it. The only “family value” the Republicans have is the dollar amount they can squeeze from middle and working class families to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
Free Market: Unregulated Capitalism.
School Choice: Privatization of education for profit.
Ronald Reagan: To make people think about the 1980s and distract from the mess they’ve created over the last 30 years through bad economic policy. Honestly? Any time someone hears “Ronald Reagan” they should think “mediocre actor,” “terrible leader.”
To be honest, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to words and phrases Republicans use to distract their voting base and the public at large from knowing their true intentions as policy makers. However, now you have this handy guide. Remember to pull it out whenever a Republican starts talking. Perfect for debates and family holiday gatherings.