How do the harms of institutional racism overlap with (and depart from) the political consequences of strategic racism? How does strategic racism coax white Americans both to resent communities of color and to distrust proactive government? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Ian Haney López. This present conversation focuses on Haney López’ book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. Haney López is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published four books and two anthologies, and has been a visiting professor at Yale, New York University, and Harvard. Alongside his academic work, Haney López has co-chaired the AFL-CIO’s Advisory Council on Racial and Economic Justice, and co-founded the Race-Class Narrative Project.
ANDY FITCH: Could you first describe some basic components of political dog whistling, and how dog whistling differs from simply sending understated signals to select audiences — particularly in terms of triggering socially unacceptable anxieties, biases, resentments (whether conscious or not)?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: As your question suggests, the “dog whistle” metaphor gestures toward forms of political speech that stay silent on one level (just as a dog whistle does for humans), while nevertheless inciting sharp reactions from certain audiences. But if we conceptualize dog whistling as merely speaking in a manner that communicates different messages to different audiences, messages heard by some but not by others, that sweeps too broadly. In a heterogeneous society like the United States, using ambiguous language that can be imbued with different meanings is simply retail politics.
What makes dog whistling democratically destructive is not the code, but the intention, the strategy behind the code. Dog whistling involves purposefully stimulating socially unacceptable hatreds, while using code that allows the speaker and the audience to maintain plausible deniability. Think about phrases like “illegal aliens” or “Make America Great Again.” Neither directly refers to race, and yet both provoke strong racial associations about who belongs here and who does not.
I mentioned political leaders choosing to dog whistle. But of course we now have a whole right-wing media ecosystem (Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Alex Jones, and others) strategically crafting language that pushes audiences to react to racial stereotypes, while still giving everybody involved cover to proclaim their innocence. When these figures promote terms like “inner city,” “gangbanger,” “illegals,” “American heartland,” “true Americans,” or “hard-working Americans,” the usage of those terms has been carefully honed to incite racial anxieties, even as both speaker and listener can say: “We never mentioned a racial group. We never mentioned color. We never used a racial epithet.”
We know that practitioners of dog whistle politics pursue this conscious strategy — mainly because most people intend the natural outcomes of their repeated actions, but also because every so often a Republican operative like Lee Atwater or Michael Steele confesses to the whole scheme. Even Donald Trump at one point criticized Pat Buchanan for engaging in divisive culture-war politics. Trump long understood the strategy, even before he became one of its master practitioners. Trump displays a genius for addressing mainstream America in terms that stoke racist fears and resentments, and then the next day denying the whole thing.
At earlier points in American politics, racist rhetoric and coded messages operated more like a secret handshake. The 1950s and 1960s (the Civil Rights era) mark the moment when politicians largely moved from express invocations of white dominance to the coded language of dog whistling, for instance through appeals to “states’ rights.” In that era, no doubt many voters still could assure themselves: Oh, okay, I understand the code. This politician stands with the white race. I’m a closet Klan member. And now I know that this politician also keeps a robe and hood in his closet, so I’ll vote for him.
Today, however, those more conscious thoughts might never play out. A deeply internalized process occurs among people who don’t consider themselves racist. Most Americans simultaneously accept racially egalitarian views (rejecting racism and discrimination) while still harboring subterranean racist stereotypes that can be easily activated by opportunistic politicians. “We must crack down on crime, cut off welfare cheats, and build a wall to keep out illegals,” the politicians might say, while adding: “None of this has to do with race. This is simple common sense, a defense of family and country.” And the thing is, the vast majority of people provoked by these racist appeals genuinely believe this isn’t racism at all. The coded denials offered by the demagogic talking head help them protect their own hearts.
By extension, could you point to how contemporary racialized dog whistling in the US helps to abet surging wealth inequality? Could you flesh out this implicit interlocking narrative that casts disadvantaged communities of color as undeserving of public support, that dismisses governmental assistance as counterproductive anyway, and that extols the (supposedly unfettered) marketplace as the only hope for America’s poor — and for the rest of us?
We must recognize that dog whistling combines and ultimately fuses both racial and class elements. On the most immediate level, dog whistling exploits racial resentment to win elections. But dog whistling also operates to turn Americans against activist government that regulates the marketplace, that taxes extreme wealth, and that pursues policies and programs to build the middle class. These race- and class-based agendas have been entwined in US politics since Barry Goldwater became the GOP’s presidential candidate for the 1964 election.
Let’s go back to the origins of dog whistling. In the early 1960s, Goldwater, the son of a wealthy family, believes that the nation’s rich are the main engines of social progress, and that New Deal-style activist government is a monstrosity. Goldwater also recognizes that his own beliefs are wildly unpopular. So he hitches his reactionary economic agenda to the racial anxiety rising especially among white Southerners, driven by backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. For business leaders like Goldwater, regulations and taxes pose a threat. For white Southerners, the mandate of racial integration poses a threat. Both big business and racial reactionaries begin to see their interests aligning around hostility toward the federal government.
Fast forward to Ronald Reagan, who gets his start in politics as a Goldwater spokesperson. Reagan realizes that opposition to economic regulation and to racial integration need not remain parallel projects, that they can be fused into a conjoined strategy. Reagan figures out how to tell a single story about the dangers posed by both race and activist government: the story of the welfare queen.
When Reagan names the welfare queen as a major threat to society, we see clearly the racist dichotomy that depicts African Americans as lazy, undeserving people ripping off the system — in contrast to whites as innocent, hard-working people contributing to that system. But at the same time, Reagan’s story discredits social welfare itself. Reagan’s story tells white Americans not just to resent people of color, but to hate government for betraying responsible citizens by redistributing their tax dollars to the undeserving.
And then Reagan adds a third element: trust yourself to the marketplace. “Watch out for lazy and larcenous welfare cheats” really means you can’t trust your neighbors. You can’t find common cause with other working families. Instead, Reagan says, you should view them as a direct threat. Nor can you call on government for help. “Government creates an entitlement mentality,” or “Government leaves the borders open,” really means government panders to people of color and threatens white people. What follows? Families are on their own, only able to take care of themselves by competing in the marketplace, and by trusting in wealthy dynasties and large corporations as the “job creators.” In other words, Reagan moved many voters from racial resentment toward distrusting government, and then toward supporting politicians and policies that primarily help the one percent.
This is “strategic racism,” racism as a motivated strategy rather than as an expression of personal prejudice. Thinking about racism as sometimes a strategy pushes us to pose the most important questions we must ask, if we’re to have any chance of understanding today’s politics and the crises confronting our society.
How and why do some of American society’s most powerful players (the Republican Party, its leadership, its major donors, the think tanks surrounding it, the right-wing media) actively fund, promote, and invigorate racism? What would it mean for wide swaths of the public, even large majorities, to see Trump and those around him as self-interested elites intentionally exacerbating existing social fractures? Can Democrats build a super-majority that is both economically progressive and also multiracial?
So let’s say these connections you’ve drawn persuade some working-class white Americans to see strategic racism as posing significant threats to their own families’ well-being. How might Derrick Bell’s conception of “interest convergence” here help illuminate possibilities for a pragmatic commitment to racial justice — as an essential fulcrum for economic justice for all (whites included)?
Bell’s thesis of interest convergence starts from the insight that, by themselves, moral appeals will remain insufficient to convince the majority of whites to support racial equality. Bell points to the fact that a racial hierarchy placing whites above blacks (and I’m using “black” here to stand in for people of color generally) does bring certain benefits to most whites — enough so that appeals to racial justice won’t convince most whites to give up these benefits. This does not mean that the US never moves any closer to racial equality. But, as Bell points out, it does mean that major advances in racial equality happen only when powerful segments of the white population come to see racial progress as in their own interests.
One of Bell’s examples is the North’s decision to wage the Civil War and to end slavery — not primarily because of some new commitment to black equality, but because of fundamental economic and sectional conflicts between capitalism organized around concentrated wealth and slavery, or instead around shared prosperity and free labor. Likewise, Bell described the mid-20th-century push to end Jim Crow segregation in the South as having as much to do with Cold War politics and propaganda as it did with a deep commitment to equality.
When Bell developed his interest-convergence thesis in the 1980s, there was little reason to believe that most whites would relinquish their racial privileges. As a result, interest convergence and Bell himself often get associated with a dismal projection of racism as a permanent feature of American society. But perhaps Bell or his advocates did not appreciate just how much anti-black racism would rob from white folks themselves.
Today, we live in the wreckage created by white majorities repeatedly voting their racial identities to support politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Donald Trump — and in the process jeopardizing their own futures (and ours). As these voters sought to preserve their status within a racial hierarchy, they elected politicians beholden to the very rich. These politicians then orchestrated a massive transfer of wealth from most of us up into the economic stratosphere, creating levels of economic inequality we haven’t seen since the early 1900s, and causing cascading deaths of despair across America.
All of which is to say, interest convergence looks different today than in the 1980s, let alone the 1960s. The material wages of whiteness have turned decisively negative. Can we communicate this convincingly to the majority of whites? That’s the question on which our democracy hangs. To claw our way back up the cliff’s edge, we must get white voters to hear and believe messages like this: If you really want to take care of your own white families, if you want to ensure that your kids can get a decent education, find a good job, live in a habitable environment, then you need to do your own active work to reject racial division — because that’s the primary weapon being used against you. When you build common cause across racial lines, then and only then will you have the power to throw out these politicians serving the one-tenth of one percent, and to elect political leaders committed to serving all of us.
And of course building momentum for cross-racial class solidarity requires not solely persuading working-class whites to see their own self-interest in such campaigns, but persuading many activists of color to recognize that coalition-building of this sort will provide the most pragmatic means for reversing the mass incarceration, mass deportation, and the systemic public neglect so acutely concentrated in certain black and brown communities. Here could you describe your own sympathetic perspective on, say, young people facing structural discrimination every single day feeling understandably skeptical of a political narrative that frames working-class whites as themselves victims of strategic racism?
First, let me reiterate a crucial point embedded in your question. Racism as a weapon of the rich has hurt almost everyone in this society — but not in the same way nor to the same degree. Communities of color have been especially devastated. Partly this is because these communities are always more economically vulnerable. But more importantly, it’s because as dog whistling politicians moved from the campaign trail into government office, their fear mongering shifted from words into state violence.
When politicians campaign by warning about dangerous and undeserving people of color, they govern by building prisons and cutting off needed government protections and assistance. Mass incarceration, mass deportation, public schools starved of resources, welfare and job programs slashed to ribbons — these are forms of violence. And for dog whistle politicians, this is also political theater, the drama that reinforces their campaign lies about threatening and lazy people of color.
To make this a bit less abstract, let’s talk about police violence against black communities, including racialized mass incarceration. How did this arise? The root causes do not point back to a culture of racism among the police (though we do have that). The racial violence produced by our criminal justice system reflects much more than an inheritance from slavery and Jim Crow (though we can make some connections). The broader structures of US racism provide an important background, but only that.
Instead, racialized mass incarceration emerges directly from dog whistle politics — starting with Nixon exploiting “crime,” “thugs,” and “drugs” as dog whistles for dangerous black and brown people. “It’s all about the damn Negroes and Puerto Ricans,” Nixon said after watching one of his own TV commercials on law and order. Then Ronald Reagan and eventually Bill Clinton developed their own campaigns warning voters in coded terms about violent people of color. And immediately upon election, their slogans became real bullets and bars, with both Republican and Democratic officials calling for more and more police, for imprisoning more and more people of color.
Now, is there significant resistance among racial-justice activists to pivoting away from the idea that racism primarily pits whites against people of color — toward this idea that racism primarily constitutes a class weapon used against almost all of us? Yes, most definitely. Many activists have long and bitter experiences with white liberals who proclaim their support for racial justice but do precious little to make this a practical reality, or who actively frustrate movement toward a racially egalitarian society.
But even so, when we recognize that the taproot of government violence against communities of color reaches deep into dog whistle politics, this should impel us to shift our vision of racial-justice organizing. I myself moved into this research because I wanted to contribute in some way to ending mass incarceration. And the reality is that if you want to end mass incarceration (really end it, and instead rebuild devastated communities), then you have to make clear to large numbers of white voters that they have their own interest in defeating dog whistle politicians.
The political coalition that ends government violence against communities of color and instead invests in repair will be (must be) multiracial. People of color by themselves cannot marshal sufficient political power. Now, you can read Bell’s interest-convergence thesis as a moral critique of white communities, as specific to this particular group who will never act on anything except their own self-interest. But that’s not what Bell meant. No racial group is especially moral, or especially self-interested. So instead, Bell intended his thesis to offer a pragmatic analysis about how big change happens, and what is required to move forward, to build sufficient power to end forms of active racism and jump-start progress toward real equality.
That last question focused on activists, but of course we also need to recognize that America’s richly heterogeneous communities of color are by no means inevitable hotbeds of progressive activism. Could you describe some of your research group’s most striking findings on the successes of right-wing racialized rhetoric within communities of color? And could you outline which approaches you found most effective for speaking to this full third of America’s persuadable middle — particularly in terms of its own conflicted views on questions of race, class, and government’s proper place in society?
We need to rethink how race and class are understood within communities of color. Racial-justice activists often draw on a historical and institutional critique. They feel comfortable offering a damning account of the United States as, from its inception onwards, organized centrally around racist hierarchies used to justify severe exploitation: dispossessing Native Americans, slavery, the taking of the northern half of Mexico. Racial-justice advocates speak eloquently from this perspective.
But most folks in communities of color don’t share this perspective. First, this vision of racism as deeply baked into our society, backed by 400 years of history, embodied presently by a white-supremacist president beloved by tens of millions of Americans — it’s just too overwhelming. Rather than inspiring people to action, it’s often demoralizing and debilitating. When we conducted focus groups in African American and Latino communities, and asked people their thoughts on this perspective, many slid toward a response that basically said: “That’s so big. That’s so much. In the face of all that, I can’t do anything except take care of myself, take care of my family.”
And then a second dynamic emerged that was even more striking. Because dog whistle politicians (again, Democrats as well as Republicans) have promoted insidious coded references to gangbangers and welfare cheats versus hard-working Americans for more than 50 years, these political frames now pervade the American popular imagination — including within communities of color. Indeed, when we tested a dog whistle message that most activists would label blatant racism, we discovered that majorities of African Americans and Latinos found the message convincing. We also uncovered majority support for these racist frames among Democrats, and among union households.
Very often, when I talk about this need to push back against the right’s weaponized racial stories, people react as if I’m yet another centrist obsessed with winning back Trump voters. That completely misunderstands the fight. The task before us is to win back majorities of communities of color, Democrats, and union households — all of which now accept as common sense the right’s stories of dangerous and undeserving people of color, and of activist government as the enemy. This is not to say that believing such stories will drive these groups to vote Republican. But it does leave them less enthusiastic to join together with other groups to elect politicians promising government solutions to the real problems we face. In other words, inoculating the progressive base against dog whistle lies is critical to building an energized, multiracial movement committed to bringing government back on the side of people.
So let’s say certain left-leaning leaders argue that a “colorblind” push for progressive economic policies (avoiding potentially divisive topics such as affirmative action or reparations) can best bring everybody together, and can have the beneficial side-effect of disproportionately assisting disadvantaged communities of color. What case can you make for why combined calls for economic and racial justice still have the most galvanizing potential — and for why we need not to talk about racism less, but to talk about racism differently?
You’ve put your finger on a major challenge dividing the left for the last 50 years. It’s been widely understood since 1970 that the right exploits race as a wedge issue to sunder the liberal coalition. The Democrats have struggled, however, to find a successful response. They typically try to ignore the GOP’s race-baiting, and when that doesn’t work, they imitate it. Think of Bill Clinton campaigning to “end welfare as a way of life,” and promising to “crack down on crime.”
Joe Biden keeps alternating between those two tired strategies right now. For the most part, he campaigns as if there’s no dog whistling going on — as if racial division is not the single most potent weapon in the GOP’s arsenal. But then, at other times, he tries imitation. For instance, look at Biden’s response to Trump shifting blame for the COVID-19 pandemic onto China, while tagging Biden as friendly toward Beijing. Biden’s ads amplify this idea of China as the main threat, but retort that it’s Trump who has rolled over for the supposed adversary.
Most Democratic Party leaders take it as received wisdom that directly addressing the right’s dog whistling is a nonstarter, because doing so alienates too many white voters. We can call this group the “colorblind left.” They studiously avoid race — not because they give racial division no thought, but because they’ve decided on silence as their strategy. And again, our research shows that they have good reason to worry. When the left condemns dog whistle politics as racism or xenophobia, this backfires. Many voters probably can’t help responding: Those radicals don’t just think Trump’s a bigot. They think I am too. So maybe Trump has a point.
Nevertheless, there is a growing unwillingness among many progressives to sidestep dog whistle politics and state violence against communities of color. For these folks, very often coming out of racial-justice movements, justice delayed is justice denied. Alienating voters uncomfortable with frank talk about racism is a price they’re willing to pay. We can call this group the “race left.”
On one level, the colorblind left and the race left seem diametrically opposed. One side insists we should ignore the right’s racist tactics, while the other urges direct confrontation. Yet on another level, both sides agree. Each sees only two available options: either alienate whites, or fail to address racial injustice.
But a third option exists, fusing these fights for racial and economic justice. This “race-class” approach directly confronts racism, as the race left insists. But, as the colorblind left cautions, this third option doesn’t decry bigotry in the GOP. Instead, it talks about racism differently. It pivots from addressing racism as fundamentally a conflict that pits whites against people of color, to addressing racism as a class weapon that threatens all of us.
The power of this race-class approach isn’t mere conjecture. Immediately after Trump’s inauguration, I pulled together a national research program to hone this approach and test my hypotheses, recruiting a communication specialist, leading pollsters, and a prominent think tank. We called it the Race-Class Narrative Project. And we found that a message calling out division as the main threat to all of us (and urging cross-racial unity in response) is, right now, the single most potent political message. It polls much better than the race left’s messages focused on helping communities of color. It persuades larger majorities of voters than a colorblind progressive message does. And crucially, it outperforms the right’s racist dog whistling.
What makes this particular message so potent? It builds bridges. People know we’re divided. People know the system is rigged. The race-class message merges these insights, presenting division as the method used to rig the system. And this race-class message links virtually every progressive demand into a single fight. Just about everything various progressives want depends on restoring broad popular support for activist government. Do you want to reverse mass incarceration? Implement comprehensive immigration reform? Provide safe working conditions? Build an adequate 21st-century infrastructure? Avert climate collapse? Well, each of those major goals demands government intervention, which means defeating the right’s divide-and-conquer tactics to build a multiracial super-majority.
In terms of unifying arguments, could you also describe what your research group found so effective less in explicit references to unjust treatment of “black and brown people” (potentially raising inferences of whites being to blame), but of “white, black, and brown people”? What makes this latter message poll so well again not just among white audiences, but audiences of color?
The colorblind approach seeks to slide past racial identity. But that just doesn’t work. We know from the 2016 election and from recent social science research that the majority of whites today think of themselves as a racial group, and evaluate their position in society through this racial lens. We also know that most whites wonder, consciously or unconsciously, what the future holds from them in a rapidly browning America. As we move toward a society with no majority racial group, many white Americans sense themselves being displaced. Especially if they lump all people of color together, whites even think of themselves as the new minority.
So what does this uncertain future portend for whites? Donald Trump answers that question all the time. According to Trump (and the right more generally), it means getting betrayed by liberals, the Democratic Party, and activist government. It means a rising threat of violent assault from rapists and terrorists and illegals. It means hearing your culture and your contributions to this country disrespected and demeaned. It basically follows the Fox News rotating broadcast schedule.
So how does the left answer this crucial question about whites’ future in the United States? The colorblind left refuses to answer at all. That helps to explain why this approach so often fails. But if anything, the race left does even worse answering this question. The race left typically answers by emphasizing harms to communities of color that must be repaired — at best ignoring whites, though often faulting them. Indeed, virtually every progressive conversation that addresses race takes this form: either faulting whites, or simply dropping them.
But the race-class response insists that, yes, we have to fight racism — and have to do so in a manner that communicates why this fight also helps whites. Progressives are losing white voters not because we have no better answer to this question about their future, but because we don’t offer that answer loudly or frequently or persuasively enough. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of whites hearing themselves recognized as a racial group with a valued and equal role to play in America’s future, and with direct benefits coming if government starts working on behalf of all Americans: black, brown, or white. Whites need to see their own best future in this multiracial society organized to take care of every person, every family. Because they constantly hear from the right that their best future will come from building a wall and buying a gun.
And then in terms of how black and brown communities themselves hear this message, could you discuss what makes such cross-racial appeals (again with whites explicitly included) so resonant among voters of color?
This, too, is very important. Again, a message to communities of color (black and brown, but also Asian American and Native American, Muslim and immigrant) urging people to fight white racism overwhelms many voters. They see that whites retain control over the vast bulk of political, governmental, economic, and cultural power in the US. But a lot changes when we say to communities of color something like: The rich use racism as a tactic against all of us. We don’t all suffer in the same way, but we do all lose when racism wins. That means we can come together across race lines, including with whites, because every racial group has their own interest in forging the multiracial coalition that alone can give us the power to really change society’s direction.
The race-class message speaks directly to skepticism in communities of color about coalition politics. It explains that every racial group must join, not solely as a matter of ethics, but because each group has its own pragmatic self-interest in building cross-racial solidarity. This fusion message certainly appeals to white communities. But by some research measurements, it might motivate African American and Latino communities even more.
And you’d hope that, with an ongoing COVID crisis, appeals to class-based, cross-racial solidarity would only get more effective.
Absolutely. The COVID pandemic offers the single most threatening (and most promising) moment for dramatic change in our lifetimes. Naomi Klein correctly warns that cataclysms of all sorts provide opportunities for elites to seize yet more wealth and power. This pandemic carries all of those same risks, but it also engenders its own distinctly threatening dynamics. First, social distancing further drives the isolation that impedes movement-building. Second, seeing other people as potential sources of contagion deepens the sense that the main threat we face comes from our own neighbors.
Yet on the promising side, this pandemic is pushing people to confront the underlying comorbidities in our society making Coronavirus so lethal. Government, Wall Street, the political parties, law enforcement, our infrastructure and schools, Main Street — just about every major social institution has been failing the American people. Never has it been clearer (or, rather, more possible to make clear to large majorities) that we need big solutions to our biggest social problems, and that only by coming together can we take care of our families and communities. We might feel stuck in our apartments or houses. But at the end of the day, unless we can come together to ensure that the government and the economy actually work for people rather than for concentrated wealth, we can’t hope to rebuild a society in which every family has a realistic opportunity to thrive, no matter our color, race, or ethnicity — or whether we’re originally from up the street or across the border.