The Problem With Dog Whistle Racism

Commentators Juan Williams and Jeffrey Goldberg have come out with articles on what they see as “dog whistle” racism among the GOP nominees.  Here’s what Williams said in his column:

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. References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.”



And here’s what Goldberg says:


Black people have lost the desire to perform a day’s work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them something because they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps. And the pathologies afflicting black Americans are caused partly by the Democratic Party, which has created in them a dependency on government not dissimilar to the forced dependency of slaves on their owners.

Judging by these claims, all of which have actually been put forward recently, here is a modest prediction: This presidential election will be one of the most race- soaked in recent history. It is already more race-soaked than the 2008 election, which, of course, marked the first time that a black man became a major-party candidate.


On a side note, I think it’s a bit odd for Williams to be talking about dog whistles when he was basically given his walking papers from NPR when many people wrongly construed some remarks on Muslims as being Islamaphobic.

The problem with dog whistle racism is that its hard to prove and rest more on the eye of the beholder than it does on any objective face.  Does talking about food stamps or the Constitution mean that one is hostile to African Americans?  Maybe, but unless we do some real digging, we don’t know.  It’s one thing to castigate someone who is making on obvious racial slur, which was the case at a recent rally for Newt Gingrich where some folks responded with chants of “Kenya!” when the former Speaker said that he wanted to send the President back home.

Was Gingrich being racist when he was talking about dependancy on food stamps and other social programs?  I don’t know.  On the one hand, his words could be taken more as critique of current African American politics and social programs, but then again it could be a way to slam blacks.  But unless folks really dig at what’s behind the words they are just words in my view.

This doesn’t mean that Republicans haven’t engaged in race-baiting; it just means, that we shouldn’t automatically go there because a GOP politician talks about welfare or having African American teens work.  People need to use their grey matter before just jumping to “racist.”

Which brings me to the finally point.  Being labeled a bigot or racist is probably the strongest charge one can give to someone.  It means that someone visibly hates a part of humanity just because they exist.  I think more and more that we need to reserve the word for the worst of the worst, instead of throwing around like it’s candy or something.  Racism is nothing that should be taken lightly and I think the dog whistle charge does just that.


One thought on “The Problem With Dog Whistle Racism

  1. Chad

    “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.[35]
    And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”” – Lee Atwater


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