Donald Trump’s zigzags on race can be confusing. He holds a polite, presidential-style press conference with the president of Mexico and then goes to Arizona to tell fans that hordes of feral Mexicans are streaming across the border and roaming our streets raping and pillaging and killing.
Trump’s approach to black/white relations is a little different. After a few years of numerous videos of unarmed black people killed by cops, Trump tells us that the police are the most persecuted minority group and denounces the Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Then he says black people are being betrayed by Democrats (big city mayors, Clinton, Obama) and he will save them by swiftly sweeping criminals into jail by allowing cops to do whatever they want.
Political analyst Carl Davidson summarized Trump’s strategy: “Divide the blacks generationally, drive a wedge between blacks and Latinos, and unite whites, along with, under the banner of ‘law and order’ and the endless ‘war on terror,’ both of which will have you trading your democratic rights for a ‘security’ defined by Trump and the police and militia police wannabes.”
To understand what is going on, you can start with a book called Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by University of California law professor Ian Haney Lopez. He analyzes how presidential candidates stir up racial anxiety without sounding like racists. He deals with George Wallace (bringing the South’s battles to the North) to Barry Goldwater (“states rights” opposition to civil rights) to Richard Nixon (“Southern Strategy”) to Ronald Reagan (“welfare queens in Cadillacs”) to George H.W. Bush (“Willie Horton” ad) to Mitt Romney’ (“makers and takers.”) In a milder fashion, Democrats Jimmy Carter (“ethnic purity”of neighborhoods), Bill Clinton (crime, welfare) and Barack Obama have sent coded racial messages. In the case of Obama, coded messages to reassure whites.
In appealing to group animosities — such as racism, sexism, homophobia — Lopez argues that a politician’s dog whistles hide the “full ugliness of the underlying message from the target audience itself.” Most Americans don’t want to think of themselves as racist. He explains:
“The racial dog whistle is a con: In the very moment it claims to be boldly telling politically incorrect truths, say about crime, immigration, terrorism, and trade, in fact it is surreptitiously manipulating people’s deepest fears about racial loss and betrayal. (Actually, it’s a double con, for in turn dog whistling exploits these anxieties to win working- and middle-class support for politicians indebted to the billionaire donor class — or, as with Trump, themselves the self-interested billionaires.)”
In an article for this election year, Lopez and Heather McGhee (president of the Demos think-tank) argued that a genuinely multi-racial progressive populist coalition needs to be created. They said “the Left will have to challenge its own orthodoxy that defines racism as something that wholly benefits whites and solely victimizes people of color. The truth is, in the post-war era, racism helped create the white middle class. Since the Reagan era, racism has helped destroy it.”
They argue that racism has become a political weapon used by plutocrats to attack the 99 percent.
Beginning in the 1970s, the rightwing used a highly racialized strategy that constantly “linked public institutions to undeserving minorities in order to undo the country’s social contract — one grounded in good government, strong unions, and regulated capitalism.”
After the civil rights victories of the 1960s, government programs became available to people of color. At the same time, life was getting harder for working class whites in the 1970s. Conservatives saw that they could gain ground by dog whistling about welfare and criminals.
This strategy was outlined by Lee Atwater in 1981 in an interview with a political scientist. Atwater had been a crucial Republican operative in South Carolina for a decade and was then working in the Reagan White House. At first, he said his generation would be “the first generation of Southerners that won’t be prejudiced” because consultants like him were no longer denouncing civil rights but emphasizing fiscal conservatism and national defense.
But then Atwater loosened up, became more honest and betrayed a guilty conscience. “Now, y’all aren’t quoting me on this?” he asked. He remarked: “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, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…”
It wasn’t revealed that Atwater said this until 1999, after he died. Atwater’s guilty conscience didn’t keep him from race-baiting seven years after the interview when he worked for George H.W. Bush. He ran a vicious ad blaming Michael Dukakis for a Massachusetts black convict, Willie Horton, who “repeatedly raped” a white woman. Indeed, Atwater pledged to make “Willie Horton his running mate.”
At the time, Bush indignantly denied any racist intent and much of the media bought his story. Today, Trump’s more explicit bigotry has discredited the GOP for many.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.