On Dogwhistles

by digby

I've been getting a flurry of odd, disorienting criticism for suggesting that the right's use of the word "presumptuous," (which the lapdog media is eating with a spoon) is a racist dogwhistle. It's disorienting because I'm not getting this from right wingers but from fellow liberals, who seem to have concluded somewhere along the the line that racism doesn't exist and/or that the right wing in this country doesn't use it to win elections.

I think we need to have a little discussion of what "racist dogwhistle" means. It is a word or phrase that conjures up certain subliminal images in those who are predisposed to see things in racial terms. It doesn't mean that everyone who hears the word as a criticism sees it in that way --- only those who get "the code." So, when Karl Rove sends out McCain's minions to spread the word "presumptuous" all over the place, the idea is to signal to the racists among us that Obama is "uppity." It doesn't mean that if you think Obama is presumptuous that you are a racist. You might just think, "yeah, he's acting like it's in the bag already." But racists hear that Obama is an uppity black man.

See, it works on two levels. That's why it's called a dogwhistle --- only the racists can hear the racism in it.

This is a complicated mode of communication that's been developed on the right for many decades. It's not something I just made up. There are dozens of examples: "welfare queen" and "Willie Horton," the "Hands" ad by Jesse Helms and most recently, the Harold Ford "Call Me" ad in 2006. The most famous of all was Ronald Reagan slyly beginning his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where one of the worst atrocities of the civil rights movement happened. Over the years it's gotten more subtle as the nation becomes less tolerant of overt racism, but it's never completely gone.

Here's how the famous GOP strategist Lee Atwater described it:

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.

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."

Racism is not dead in this country, as much as we wish it were. It's getting better. But you only have to read this article from last week in the NY Times to know (as if you have to see it written in the paper) that this issue still has salience:

Americans are sharply divided by race heading into the first election in which an African-American will be a major-party presidential nominee, with blacks and whites holding vastly different views of Senator Barack Obama, the state of race relations and how black Americans are treated by society, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The results of the poll, conducted against the backdrop of a campaign in which race has been a constant if not always overt issue, suggested that Mr. Obama’s candidacy, while generating high levels of enthusiasm among black voters, is not seen by them as evidence of significant improvement in race relations.

After years of growing political polarization, much of the divide in American politics is partisan. But Americans’ perceptions of the fall presidential election between Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, also underlined the racial discord that the poll found. More than 80 percent of black voters said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama; about 30 percent of white voters said they had a favorable opinion of him.

Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Four in 10 blacks say that there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; fewer than 2 in 10 whites say the same thing. And about one-quarter of white respondents said they thought that too much had been made of racial barriers facing black people, while one-half of black respondents said not enough had been made of racial impediments faced by blacks.

The survey suggests that even as the nation crosses a racial threshold when it comes to politics — Mr. Obama, a Democrat, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged in recent years.

Indeed, the poll showed markedly little change in the racial components of people’s daily lives since 2000, when The Times examined race relations in an extensive series of articles called “How Race Is Lived in America.”

As it was eight years ago, few Americans have regular contact with people of other races, and few say their own workplaces or their own neighborhoods are integrated. In this latest poll, over 40 percent of blacks said they believed they had been stopped by the police because of their race, the same figure as eight years ago; 7 percent of whites said the same thing.

This certainly doesn't mean that everyone who dislikes Obama is a racist. But it does suggest that some people dislike him because of his race and can be persuaded with some subliminal racialized massaging that McCain agrees with them. Republicans have been winning with this formula for many, many years so this shouldn't exactly be news to anyone.

As anyone who has ever seen Gone With The Wind knows, the "uppity" theme goes all the way back to Reconstruction where it especially applied to northern black carpetbaggers who allegedly lorded over the vanquished south. (It also, of course, applied to those former slaves who behaved like they were actually, you know, free.) It comes out today in the anti-affirmative action victimization and commentary like this:

Hall: If they can’t prove he’s a Muslim, then let’s prove his wife is an angry black woman. I think it’s going to get ugly.

Thomas: And who are the black women you see on the local news at night in cities all over the country. They’re usually angry about something. They’ve had a son who has been shot in a drive-by shooting. They are angry at Bush. So you don’t really have a profile of non-angry black women.

The idea that racism doesn't exist and that the right wing isn't trying to stoke it with the first nomination of black candidate is naive. (They would have used all the overt sexist smears that were previewed in the primaries if Clinton had won, as well.) It's the way the right wins elections --- by stoking tribal resentment and tickling the ids of Americans who are hostile to any kind of progress because they are afraid they will lose out.

* For the record, I don't think that the phrase "fairy tale" or the LBJ/MLK comments during the primaries were racist dogwhistles. There's no linguistic association or meaning in those things that make sense as a code designed to appeal to racists. However, I'm not in any position to judge whether it's appropriate that blacks felt they were insulting --- I'm not black and they are the ones to make that call, not me. But a racist dogwhistle is a conscious, pre-planned word or phrase designed to explicitly appeal to racists. I don't think those things fit that criteria.

And by the way, I was one who defended Clinton vociferously against sexist commentary during the primaries and I have the scars to prove it. I guess no good deed goes unpunished. This is the kind of analysis I have been doing for five years on this blog. It should surprise nobody that I would write about it, whether it's Clinton, Obama or any other Democrat who's the victim of it. It's what I do.

Update: dday hits the latest one today. I would just add that there's a secondary dogwhistle in this one too, that stems from Maureen Dowd's nasty little jibes about Obama being an "anorexic starlet."

He's not just a black man messing around with white women. He's a gay man on the "down-low." Like all Democrats.