Dog-Whistle Politics: Talking About Race Without Talking About Race

Students consider the history of "dog-whistle" politics and whether the current campaign season marks a break from the past practice by making racial references overt.   

To the Teacher:

Since the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, politicians in the United States have generally avoided making explicitly racist appeals to voters. Instead, they have sometimes used coded words and phrases — so-called "dog whistles" — that aim to speak to biases of race, religion, or ethnicity without saying so outright. Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of using dog whistles. In the current political climate, some commentators argue that racist attitudes are not even hidden anymore, but rather are again becoming more explicit.

This lesson will consider the history of "dog-whistle" politics, and it will ask whether the current campaign season marks a break from past practices. The first student reading below examines the history of dog whistle politics in the United States. The second reading considers statements from the presidential campaign and asks whether they cross the line from dog-whistle politics to overt prejudice. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading 1
Dog Whistles: How Politicians Speak in Code

Since the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, politicians have generally avoided making explicitly racist appeals to voters. Instead, they have sometimes used coded words and phrases — so-called "dog whistles" — that aim to speak to biases of race, religion, or ethnicity without saying so outright. Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of using dog whistles.

Some people argue that the use of dog whistles is an inherent part of politics and does not necessarily imply prejudice. They highlight how the careful selection of phrases and gestures send subtle signals to different audiences. In this vein, journalist Nia-Malika Henderson noted in a March 3, 2009, article for Politico that President Obama could be seen as using targeted language to appeal to the black community. Henderson wrote:

On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington’s African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back. 

"Nah, we straight," Obama replied. 

The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, "No, we’re straight."

But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, "mad cool." 

On matters of racial identity, many observers in the African-American community say he benefits from what's known as "dog-whistle politics." His language, mannerisms and symbols resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences....

Dog-whistle politics was hardly invented by Obama. One of its most deft practitioners lately was President George W. Bush. He regularly borrowed the language of evangelical Christianity and the anti-abortion movement to signal he was simpatico with their beliefs, even as he often avoided obvious displays of support that might turn off middle-of-the-road voters.

"The code words matter, how you dress matters, how you speak matters; it’s all subliminal messaging, and all politicians use it," said Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, who specializes in race and American politics. "Ronald Reagan used to talk about making America the shining city on a hill, which is about America as divinely inspired, and it has a deep vein in the evangelical conservative movement. It goes on all the time, and there are so many circumstances when only the target people get the message."

"Dog whistles" sometimes serve as a means of making racist appeals in subtle ways. As historian Robert Brent Toplin wrote in a December 10, 2015, article for

Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by promoting a "Southern Strategy." That, too, was an example of dog-whistle politics. The Republican candidate blamed many of America’s problems on blacks, but not through specific language. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s close adviser, said "The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." Rather than refer directly to blacks, Nixon promised "law and order" and respect for "states’ rights."

Many elements factored in Ronald Reagan’s presidential victories; indirect references to race were only part of the mix. Reagan defended his positions on principle, not prejudice. He had opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, arguing against federal intervention in states’ affairs. Reagan launched his 1980 campaign for the White House near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the place where three civil rights workers had been slain years before. During his visits around the United States, Reagan spoke often about an exploitative "welfare queen" in Chicago, and listeners understood that the lady was a black woman. Reagan convinced many white Democrats, including southerners, to abandon their party and register as Republicans.

As law professor Ian Hanley-Lopez argued during an January 14, 2014, appearance on Democracy Now, such dog-whistle racism is becoming an increasingly large part of conservative political strategy. Hanley-Lopez states:

Politics now is occurring in coded terms, like a dog whistle. On one level, we hear clearly there’s a sense of racial agitation; on another level, plausible deniability—people can insist nothing about race at all. And so, classic examples: Reagan and welfare queens, or Newt Gingrich saying Obama is a "food stamp president." Now, on one level, that’s triggering racial sentiment, triggering racial anxiety. On another, of course, Newt Gingrich can turn around and say, "I didn’t mention race. I just said food stamps." In fact, he can go further and say, "It’s a fact," as if there isn’t a sort of a racial undertone there....

They’re using these sort of coded appeals to say to people two things: One, the biggest threat in your life is not concentrated wealth, it’s minorities; and two, government coddles minorities, and all these government assistance programs, it’s all about giveaways to minorities—oppose them—government is taking your taxes and giving it to undeserving minorities. So when we think about why it is that so many people would—in the midst of an economic crisis, would vote to slash taxes for the rich, to favor deregulation and to slash social services, partly—in fact, I’d say primarily—they’re doing so because of the sort of racial narrative employed with dog whistle politics....

[W]e’re not saying that race has entered politics recently; we’re saying racism has been central to American politics for centuries, but it has changed form. After the civil rights movement, you couldn’t use open slurs... It’s political suicide now for any politician to use an open racial slur, so that the new public racism is coded. It always operates on two levels—on one level, triggering racial anxiety; on another, allowing plausible deniability.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are "dog whistle politics"?
  3. Although all politicians use some type of coded and targeted language, there is a more disturbing history of using dog whistles as a way to invoke racist ideas. What are some examples of this?
  4. Have you heard "dog whistle" phrases in your own life? What have some of these phrases been? Who do you think they were meant to appeal to?
  5. Journalist Nia-Malika Henderson provides examples of presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan using targeted language to convey identification with specific communities, such as the black community or evangelical conservatives. How is this use of targeted rhetoric different than the use of racist dog whistles? Why might some dog whistles be okay and others be hurtful and prejudiced?



Reading 2:
Has the 2016 Campaign Gone Beyond Dog-Whistling?

In the current political climate, a variety of commentators have argued that racist attitudes are not even hidden anymore, but rather are again becoming more explicit. Associated Press reporters Russell Contreras and Jesse Holland write in a July 22, 2016, article, that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's rhetoric has pushed the boundaries of dog-whistle politics. They write:

During the primaries, Donald Trump threw red-meat rhetoric to supporters, pledging to build a wall on the Mexico border and to ban Muslim immigrants. He even told at least one crowd that he wanted to punch a demonstrator who disrupted an event.

Now that he’s the GOP presidential nominee, who needs to appeal to the whole country instead of just Republicans, some observers say he’s turning to code words to gin up racial animosity and fear among America’s white voters.

Ian Haney Lopez, author of "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class," went further, saying Trump’s [convention] speech surpassed even the coded racial language of Richard Nixon in 1968.

In addition to appealing to whites’ racial anxieties about crime, the celebrity businessman added immigrants to the mix and said refugee families with unknown backgrounds threaten to transform the nation unless drastic measures are taken, Lopez said.

"This was a speech that said essentially that the barbarians are at the gate," he said.

Samuel LeDoux, a Republican delegate from New Mexico who is Hispanic, said he didn’t hear racial overtones in Trump’s speech.

"I think people are reading too much into it," said LeDoux, 24, who agrees with Trump’s call to reduce illegal immigration because it is affecting wages. "He comes from New York, a very diverse city."

Trump "didn’t get on stage and issue a bunch of racial epithets," said Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie, who watched his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. "We didn’t hear the N-word, and we didn’t hear other words that may offend many people. But just because he didn’t use racial slurs doesn’t mean he didn’t frame issues in a way that people in racial and ethnic groups find problematic."

Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political science professor, told Newsweek that academics have found that "politicians don’t really employ explicit racial terms anymore because it turns people off, it’s not very strategic." But, he says, Trump has gone further than most modern politicians, talking openly of race and ethnicity, labeling Mexican immigrants rapists and proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country. "Since the advent of the civil rights movement, we haven’t seen anything like this," said Hutchings.

Trump has defended himself against the charges of racism, declaring that "people who want a secure border are not racists" and that people who "speak out against radical Islam and who warn about refugees are not Islamophobes... They are decent citizens who want to uphold our value as a tolerant society and who want to keep the terrorists the hell out of our country." Trump added that "those who support the police and who want crime reduced and stopped are not prejudiced... They're concerned and loving citizens and parents whose heart breaks every time an innocent child is lost to totally preventable violence."

Trump said that "to accuse decent Americans who support this campaign... of being racists, which we’re not" is "the oldest play in the Democratic playbook...When Democratic policies fail, they are left with only this one tired argument. ‘You’re racist. You’re racist...’ It’s a tired, disgusting argument. And it is so totally predictable. They’re failing so badly. It’s the last refuge of the discredited, Democrat politician."

Clinton herself has come under fire for her use of the term "super-predators" during a 1996 speech in support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which her husband, Bill Clinton, had signed in to law. The fact-checking website Politifact notes that while in her speech Clinton did link children and superpredators, "nowhere in the speech does she directly label African-American youth this way." Nevertheless, during the campaign, Black Lives Matter activists urged Clinton to apologize for the statement. The following day, she expressed regret for her choice of words.

In an April 29, 2016 op-ed, for the New York Times entitled "The Upside to Overt Racism," journalist Jenee Desmond-Harris argued that the open controversy over race in this campaign may actually make it easier to have discussions about the reality of persistent of racism in American life. Desmond-Harris wrote:

In a world where racism and discrimination — both personal and systemic — shape opportunities and can even determine life or death, but are often denied, they’re rarely owned so boldly as they have been during this campaign....

At a March rally for Mr. Trump in Louisville, Shiya Nwanguma, a student, says she was called the n-word and other repulsive slurs. Video of the event shows her being pushed and shoved. Another protester there, Chanelle Helm, told Vibe magazine in March: "In my entire life I had never had anyone look at me with such hate. It was like the videos and photos we’ve seen from the Little Rock 9 and other school integration moments from the 1950s and ’60s where the fury was palpable in the eyes of the white women."

At a high school basketball game in Indiana earlier this year, CNN reported that students chanted "Build that wall," at an opposing team made up predominantly of Latino players.

The expression of racist views in this campaign has been so undeniable that even politicians — notoriously careful and diplomatic — are stating it as fact.

"America’s long struggle with racism is far from over, and we are seeing that in this election," Hillary Clinton said at the National Action Network convention in April. She didn’t say racial tension, or community-police relations, or inequality, or issues faced by black and Latino Americans. She said: racism.

For once, nobody is pretending that racism is at a frequency so high they can’t make it out. Racism is no longer being treated as a feeling, an allegation, a matter of opinion, or something that can be negated by the announcement of a black friend....

When Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, a question bubbled up: "Is America on its way to being post-racial?" It was always laughably optimistic, but now we have a clearer answer than ever: no.

... If diversity is going to cause racial anxiety, it’s better to accept that than to lie to ourselves about the inevitability of a harmonious multiracial melting pot. It’s good to know the truth. And Mr. Trump’s supporters seemed to have provided a reality check.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Critics of Donald Trump argue that not only has he used dog whistle appeals but has also made overtly racist appeals. But Donald Trump has countered that his stances on immigration and crime are not racist, but an effort by his opponents to divert attention from their failed policies. What do you think?
  3. In the New York Times, Desmond Harris notes that explicitly racist statements on the campaign trail give us the opportunity to talk more honestly about racism. What do you think about this argument? Is there a positive side to racism coming out into the open?