As Barack Obama raised his hand to take the oath in 2009, he stood before the largest crowd ever assembled for an event in Washington DC. The estimated 1.8 Million that gathered on that day easily broke the previous record (1.2 M for LBJ) and was seven times larger than the 1963 March on Washington (250K), a record in its time. Millions more of us were glued to our television screens in rapt attention. It was an exciting moment filled with emotion and historic consequence, but also one accompanied by an element of disbelief.
That may have been especially so for those of us with a history in Civil Rights struggles, but probably no less for those who had worked so hard on a campaign that Obama often characterized as “unlikely”. There he was, a black president — our president — and we were figuratively or literally pinching ourselves to make sure that it wasn’t all a dream. Could it be, and so relatively soon since King’s iconic speech and the struggle that often seemed insurmountable? OMG, we had elected an inaugurated a black president. What a great day, how very far we had all come.
We were hardly alone in expressing that OMG, but not everyone saw it in a positive way. Far from considering it a great day, a significant number of Americans saw January 20, 2009 as unnerving, horrific and even catastrophic. They too watched in disbelief, bearing witness to their rightful order, the one on which they counted, evaporating before their eyes. Would it have happened if not for our collective war fatigue and a near financial collapse in an election year? Let’s leave that to historians, but for sure Obama’s election did not fit the plan nor did it reflect the rightward direction in which the country had been heading for more than four decades.
Many of those who now felt disenfranchised saw Obama as an illegitimate president, someone who in their mind was not even American. What he called his “funny name” was indeed alien, even his claimed Christian faith suspect. As I’ve suggested before, for many Obama typifies the other, someone “not like us”. He personifies a potential and threatening sea change, a transfer of power away from the “entitled”. And much, if not all of this unease, centers on a single word: race. If these last five plus years have proven anything, it is that any notion of a post-racial America was always a dream, and a naïve one at that.
It’s been many weeks since I’ve written a post. Much of this quiet time has been spent trying to make some sense of the mess in which we find ourselves on so many fronts, domestic and foreign. It’s a crazy idea but I’ve been trying to think before writing. In much of that time, the title of this blog has been sitting atop an otherwise blank Word document. In thinking ahead to the coming elections and about these last years of political acrimony and gridlock, the idea of “OMG, A Black President” just wouldn’t leave my mind. Was I being irrational, wrongly obsessed with how race was playing out before us? Well, thanks to my friend Eric Dashman the answer, the confirmation of sanity, came in alerting me to Bill Moyers’ interview of law professor Ian Haney Lopez. Lopez, discussing his recently published book, was saying all the things I was thinking and more important making a compelling case for what ails our country, and why.
Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class was on my iPad within minutes of watching the interview. I couldn’t put it down. Lopez’ title was inspired by a simple device that we humans can see, but that can be heard and understood only by dogs. Dog whistles speak in a special code and so too do the metaphoric racial political dog whistles employed by the politicians and opinion makers who use them. These are suggestive messages, rich in innuendo and aimed at specific target audiences. But, as Lopez suggests, it doesn’t take much for all of us to understand their meaning. We have come to understand the buzzwords and images, and they have had a cumulative effect in drawing and reinforcing the lines that so divide us. When Mitt Romney spoke of the 47%, we instinctively knew their identity. We understand the underlying meaning of the “takers” — recipients of food stamps, Medicaid, and even public education. Conversely, we recognize who falls under the definition of “hard working American taxpayers” and who does not. Race is writ large in these coded words.
I won’t attempt to more than skim Lopez’s case here — you should read it. His story begins with the prescient, albeit unsuccessful, campaign of Barry Goldwater and takes firm hold a mere four years later with Nixon’s infamous Southern Strategy. Beyond all else, this is a perception game, one premised on a simple strategy of steering white voters toward a common self-preservation cause under the umbrella of their (White Republican) party. It has been remarkably successful not only in determining the priorities and direction of the GOP, but also in influencing the conversation and ultimately policy across the entire political landscape. Republicans turned increasingly (hard) right but so, to some significant degree, have Democrats (especially since Clinton) followed along, abandoning liberalism for something right of center. A striking outcome of Dog Whistle Politics is that since 1960 Republicans have garnered a plurality and usually a majority of white voters in all but one presidential election cycle.
What was implied in Nixon’s Southern Strategy became more blatant with Reagan’s talk of “Welfare Queens” and George HW Bush’s racially infused Willy Horton commercial in 1988. To get a sense of how intrusive this has been, Bill Clinton, who has been called our first “black president”, made much of his presidential legacy about “ending Welfare as we know it”. The reform was premised on the idea that “lazy” recipients need to be forced off the government tit and into the workforce. And who are these people? Mostly shiftless black recipients, people who prefer gaming the system rather than being productive — read, being hard working taxpayers. An assault on public sector unions/employees, including teachers who serve the same disadvantaged citizens, is only a different side of the same coin.
In 1965 President Johnson signed Title XVIII of the Social Security Act providing universal healthcare for America’s seniors. For sure Medicare had its detractors including those who saw it as socialized medicine. But no one ever called it Johnsoncare; no one tried to turn the president’s name into an epithet. In attacking the Affordable Care Act and pejoratively branding it Obamacare, we can see a striking example of the dog whistle. As Lopez writes, “here comes a black man to get government involved raising taxes on you in order to fund even more giveaways to minorities.” More specifically, “…Obama cares about minority loafers and not white taxpayers”.
The wave of new voter ID laws being passed in the very states where poll taxes and bogus qualification “tests” were used to subvert and prevent African American participation may now be aimed at suppressing Democratic votes, but only the blind can miss its larger racial component, one that also impacts Latinos. “Voter fraud” is the dog whistle code for keeping the right people (Republicans and by extension whites) in power.
Today’s heightened role of race in politics correlates directly to America’s dramatic demographic shift. Whites are on their way to losing numerical preeminence. Having a black president just rubs salt into the festering wound of feared power loss. Whether that loss will occur and when is still a mater of conjecture. Lopez believes that Republicans are likely to coopt second and third generation Latinos into the white fold, something that might turn the projected demographic shift on its head. Some light skin blacks “passed” in an earlier time. Accent free citizens of Hispanic heritage can easily meld into the “white” population totally unnoticed. Some already have. In a cautionary message, Lopez sees this as a likely “solution” to the GOP’s demographic dilemma.
The point is that there are lots of potential weapons in the arsenal of those who seek to turn back the clock. What I find most disturbing is that those using those weapons, the whistle blowers, have been very successful in coopting others, sometimes unwittingly, to their cause. Considering how transparent the pejorative use of Obamacare, it is shocking to see the likes of the NY Times and NPR being subverted into playing along. More telling is that Obama and his Administration have fallen into the same perilous trap.
Barack Obama is our first black president, an accomplishment that undoubtedly makes him acutely aware of how race plays out in this country. What Ian Lopez contends is not new to him. But race, perhaps especially to him, is a sensitive and conflicting subject. On the one hand, one might expect the president’s voice to be raised against dog whistle politics and its use as a corrosive weapon of civic destruction. On the other, he carries the burden of any groundbreaker, one familiar to other first of their kind: African Americans, women and in another generation to Catholics like Kennedy and Jews like Louis Brandeis. In fact, Obama is probably the least able to take on the race fight, certainly not with any regularity and consistency. Like other pioneers before him, his first priority is to prove that someone like him can perform equal to, or ideally better, than any “more likely” counterparts. His identity is, if you will, the cause of the perceived problem and carrying the anti-racist flag would only be reconfirm the dog whistle blowers’ contention — “what can you expect, we told you so”. Put simply, it’s up to many of us to combat the dog whistle, and it’s on us that it remains so powerful. How Obama is doing the job he was elected to do is another and important question, the subject of my next post.