The Racial Paranoid Style In American Politics

The Racial Paranoid Style In American Politics

Update: I missed this, but, per Sally Kohn, please add “Uncle Sugar” to the list of racialized and/or racist dog whistles. 

A “dog whistle,” according to the Urban Dictionary, “is a type of strategy of communication that sends a message that the general population will take a certain meaning from, but a certain group that is “in the know” will take away the secret, intended message. Often involves code words.”

If you only knew how often you use these ugly code words, you’d be horrified.

When Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman went off on 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree after the NFC Championship game, some folks decided to call him a “thug.” (A more precise way to describe Sherman’s outburst might be obnoxiously unsportsmanlike and narcissistic).  Historically speaking, the word seems to fall well within the normal confines of sports talk, but yet it ignited a national dialogue on permissible words and dog whistles. But thought policemen from the Amy Davidson at the New Yorker to Bill Maher to everyone at MSNBC came to the consensus that referring to a trash talker as a “thug” can only be a subtle form of racism.

Conveniently, this position could promptly be turned into a political matter. At the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie, who specializes in unearthing imaginary bigotry, says that Sherman was right to propose that the word “thug” has become an “accepted way of calling somebody the N-word.” Bouie then makes the jump to the “fever swamps” of the Right, where the word “thug” has — you may not be surprised — been used to describe the president by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann and Karl Rove.

So, in other words, whatever you think you may have heard from conservatives, every time Obama is criticizes with harsh rhetoric, what you should be hearing is the N-word.

Neat trick. And Bouie is not alone. You’ll remember that according to American’s foremost public intellectual the phrase “Obamacare” is also racially-motivated, a “derogatory” term that’s tantamount to using the “N-word.” Another Daily Beast writer, Michael Tomasky, accused Mitt Romney of “race-baiting” when he referred to the Affordable Health Care Act as Obamacare.

And it’s not just Obamacare. Did you know even attaching “Obama” to another term can be construed as prejudice? This is what Angela Onwuachi-Willig, the Charles and Marion Kierscht professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law, proposed in a New York Times piece headlined “‘Obama’ Has Become a Code Word.” And just because you’re on the side of history doesn’t mean you’re immune: “For some whites,” Onwuachi-Willig writes, “saying ‘I voted for Obama’ is like a free pass to discriminate.”

And here’s a reminder of some other dog whistles to avoid:

Bringing up “states’ rights” – sometimes known as the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution; the document elected officials swear to uphold – is equivalent to supporting Jim Crow.  Even getting too worked up over the Constitution points to some super-secret coded racial animus. As Juan William once pointed out:

“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. 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.’”

Also, “food stamps,” or any talk of “welfare” or “dependency”  — even accusing the president of “taking the work requirement out of welfare” — is no better than tossing the N-word around. Stay away from “entitlement state” or “entitlement” paired with anything to do with government.

Just ask Toure, also an MSNBC host, who believes white working class voters are innately racist and find comfort in this sort of bigotry. To refer to the president as “angry” is “racial coding” that unveils “really deep stereotypes about the angry black man.” For example, blurting out, “Toure is an angry, intellectual fraud” would not be permissible.

Also, “Chicago,” the city, as Chris Matthews, Bouie and others have declared, isn’t just a way to implicitly connect someone to corrupt and ineffective governance, but a devious way to point out that Obama is black and from Chicago. Apparently, this is a secret.

Too much talk about all the “golf” the president likes to plays is, as Lawrence O’Donnell astutely pointed out, encrypted racism.

Now, unlike some people, I do believe racist dog whistles, though rare, exist in politics. But casting preposterously wide net on what is deemed acceptable speech tends not only obscures genuine bigotry but is starting to look like a case of collective paranoia.

This is probably because we tend to believe the worst about our ideological opponents. But it’s gotten to the point where some ‘conservatives are racists’ is now ‘conservatism itself is racist.’ Ian Haney Lopez recently wrote entire book called “Dog Whistle Politics,” in which he argues, according to Salon, “that politicians on the right have used coded racial appeals to tear at the fabric of the social safety net.” Lopez goes on to say that, “Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich.”

Confused? Well, here’s a crazy thought. Maybe these supposed dog whistles are only about attacking liberal and New Deal government? Whether it’s “good for the country” is up for discussion, and probably why we have more than one political party.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.

David Harsanyi is a former Senior Editor at The Federalist. He is the author of First Freedom: A Ride Through America's Enduring History with the Gun. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo evegophotos
Related Posts