GOODBYE, MIDDLE CLASS, Part 12: Whistling Dixie: How Racism Found a New Tune
Continued from Part 11: The Myth of the Self-Made Man
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." --Mahatma Ghandi
In Dog Whistle Politics, law professor Ian Haney Lopez explains the popular enthusiasm for policies injuring the middle class by defining dog whistle politics as “coded racial appeals that carefully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites. Examples of dog whistling include repeated blasts about criminals and welfare cheats, illegal aliens, and sharia law in the heartland. Superficially, these provocations have nothing to do with race, yet they nevertheless powerfully communicate messages about threatening nonwhites. In the last 50 years, dog whistle politics has driven broad swaths of white voters to adopt a self-defeating hostility toward government, and in the process has remade the very nature of race and racism. American politics today – and the crisis of the middle class – simply cannot be understood without recognizing racism’s evolution and the power of pernicious demagoguery.”
If minorities vote Democrat because of economic interests, whites vote Republican because of racial anxiety, a deliberate result of their coded language that operates like a dog whistle on two levels: inaudible and easily denied in one range, yet stimulating strong reactions in another. They may steadfastly oppose racism, but their racial discourse keeps subliminally appealing to color-coded solidarity, with use of terms like welfare queen, sharia law, and gangbanger.
It’s an open secret the GOP relies on racial appeals to help win elections.
In 2005, Ken Mehlman, former Chairman of the RNC and Campaign Manager of President Bush's 2004 re-election, admitted to the NAACP that the GOP had exploited racial divisions for the last 40 years by alienating many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South – otherwise known as “Southern Strategy” – provoking racial animosities in order to gain votes and power.
In 2010 RNC chairman Michael Steele reiterated this confession. He admitted they were wrong, but too bad they still employee Southern Strategy to this very day.
Disgustingly, the Southern Strategy was a direct result of the civil rights movement, just like the return of Rebel flags, which had virtually ceased to exist in the South until the 1960s, where they were proudly trumpeted with the sole purpose of intimidation – a flagrant reminder for blacks to remember their place in Southern society.
Racism didn’t disappear overnight. It simply changed clothes. And parties.
Segregationist Alabama Governor Judge George Wallace was one of the first to exploit this throughout the country, seguing from stopping integration into “states rights,” the country’s oldest euphemism for slavery. Fear and hate was mobilized without actually mentioning race.
According to Mother Jones, by the early 60s, "Southern whites who wanted to keep Jim Crow intact... began a massive exodus from the increasingly black-friendly Democratic Party... Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP nominee, refused to support the Civil Rights Act that year, and influential conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley were decidedly unfriendly toward black equality. This made the Republican Party more and more appealing to Southern white racists, and by 1968 Richard Nixon decided to explicitly reach out to them with a campaign based on states' rights and "law and order." Over the next two decades, the Democratic Party became ever less tolerant of racist sentiment and the exodus continued."
If this sounds hard to believe, Gallop backs it up with two revealing charts: "We find that except for issues involving racial integration and discrimination, whites in the South and elsewhere have indistinguishable preferences on both domestic and foreign policy in the 1950s....We find no evidence that white Southerners who have negative views of women, Catholics or Jews differentially leave the Democratic party in 1963; the exodus is specific to those who are racially conservative." Among Southern whites, approval of JFK plummets right at his televised civil rights speech in 1963, when racially conservative Southern whites leave the party in droves. It's not a steady decline, but a sharp, sudden exodus at a specific moment in time.
And conservative politicians and strategists exploited this racial tension for votes. To quote Lee Atwater, political strategist, chairman of the RNC, advisor to Ronald Reagan, and dog whistle pioneer:
“As to the whole Southern Strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South… How you handle the race thing…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, uh, forced busing, states rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem…You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying ‘We want to cut taxes and 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.’ So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”
You can listen to Atwater’s damning 42-minute conversation about Southern Strategy HERE.
The white power structure of the 1960s and 1970s were retaliating to the civil rights movement with a decisive political realignment.
According to Jeffrey D. Sachs in The Price of Civilization, “The South, solidly Democratic for a century after the Civil War, suddenly flipped to the Republican Party. The Deep South and the Southwest were no politically ascendant in that they could deliver a Republican president, ushering in an era in which white opposition to federal programs had an underlying racial component. Before the civil rights era, federal social spending was mainly for white voters… With the success of the civil rights movement and the rise of anti-poverty programs in the 1960s, federal benefits increasingly flowed to minority communities. The political reaction was a sharp turn of the many white voters away from government’s leadership role.”
In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez explains “how politicians backed by concentrated wealth manipulate racial appeals to win elections and also to win support for regressive policies that help corporations and the super-rich, and in the process wreck the middle class. Racism is not disappearing, it’s adapting.”
Considering Reagan’s father didn’t allow him to see Birth of a Nation because it glorified the KKK, Reagan had no problem opposing civil rights bills in the 1960s. And through Lee Atwater, Reagan perfected the dog whistle strategy.
Explains Lopez, “Reagan also implied another stereotype, this one about whites: they were the workers, the tax payers, the persons playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet while brazen minorities partied with their hard-earned tax dollars.
Many of the New Deal’s programs were initially available only to whites. Once the civil rights movement changed that, conservatives began to demonize these very social services as a kneejerk reaction. Lopez explains this “strategic racism refers to purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing.”
Let’s look at a few myths propagated in the name of racism.
Voter abuse is not that common – just like voter fraud is not that common. These are myths perpetuated for one reason alone: dog whistle racism.
Real voter fraud numbers are practically non-existent.
MYTH: voter fraud
FACT: There have been only 10 cases of voter ID fraud in 15 years, or 1 out of every 15,000,000 prospective voters. In other words, less often than people are struck and killed by lightning.
Reagan Republicans have confirmed that their leverage in elections increase as voter turnout decreases.
Which leads us to gerrymandering – one more way conservatives secure unearned power. Ian Haney Lopez writes in Dog Whistle Politics that in 2012, “through gerrymandered districts, the Republicans won control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin, yet the Democrats cumulatively received 1.4 million more votes.
Thomas Friedman explains in That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind the World it Invented, and How We Can Come Back, "The gerrymandering of legislative districts now favors the election of hyper-partisan ideologues, rather than flexible problem solvers. Super empowered and super funded special interest groups now clog the system’s arteries. The new media highlight the loudest and most partisan voices, and more and more depict politics as sports, where all that matters is who won today’s game.”
And now that the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013 by the Supreme Court, Republican-controlled legislatures are free to disenfranchise minority voters through ID laws and other Southern Strategies.
The only ones generally committing voter fraud are the politicians that have something at stake in the electoral outcome.
7 academic papers, 4 government inquiries, 2 news investigations and 1 court ruling have proven that voter fraud is a myth.
So why do conservative politicians try to convince us otherwise? It’s quite simple.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 11% of the voting-age population lacks the kind of I.D. cards required by the strictest states. 18% of Americans over the age of sixty-five do not have such documentation; among African-Americans the figure is 25%.
All voter I.D. laws serve the same purpose: to prohibit minorities from voting.
The very night Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he remarked somberly that, “we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Johnson had no idea how right he was.
Lopez explains in Dog Whistle Politics that Johnson “failed to anticipate that the GOP would purposefully construct a strategy around covert racial appeals that would encompass the whole country and would endure for more than half a century. Johnson himself won the presidency that fall, but his 1964 election marked the LAST TIME a majority of whites voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans have carried white majorities in every presidential election since.”
This is despite Barrack Obama winning with 70 million votes in 2008, the most people in our history voting for a president. Just not many of the white ones.
Still in doubt about the racist undertones?
Let’s try a more famous example.
THE WELFARE QUEEN
Reagan claimed the welfare state is broken, and he purported to be the man to fix it.
“In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers, to collect food stamps, social security, veterans benefits for four non-deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income has been running 150-thousand dollars a year,” Reagan warned.
He rallied the public with his tales of welfare fraud, proclaiming, “The trail extends through 14 states, she has used 127 names so far, posed as a mother of 14 children at one time, 7 at another. Signed up twice with the same case worker in four days, and once while on welfare, posed as an open heart surgeon.”
Now try this exercise: picture a welfare recipient.
What does your welfare queen look like? Is she an overweight, lazy black woman with too many kids?
Congratulations! You – along with the majority of Americans – have fallen for this core conservative myth.
Like any other Hollywood professional, Reagan liked to tell stories. And like many of the ones seen on the silver screen, they were rarely accurate depictions.
Have you ever heard of Linda Taylor?
Taylor was charged with making a bogus robbery claim of $10,000 worth of valuables. Two years later, she was cited for making a false report that she’d been burglarized with $14,000 in furs and jewelry. Then she claimed that $17,000 in jewelry was stolen from her. Then she turned around and stole $800 worth of possessions from her roommate. She also had 3 social security cards, 80 names, 31 addresses, 30 different wigs, and 25 phone numbers. She received $150,000 in illicit welfare cash. She was married to two different men at the same time. She was indicted on charges of perjury, bigamy, and theft. She mooched off of food stamps, Medicaid, Social Security, and Aid to families with dependent children. Her daughter and son-in-law were indicted for scamming Aid to Families. Police took two small children from her, living in squalor, and placed them in protective custody. Two psychiatrists said she was psychotic. She claimed her 11-year old son had been kidnapped. She claimed to be the daughter of a wealthy gambling kingpin after he died in order to pocket his fortune of $763,000 and accused her stepmother of trying to poison her with strychnine. She’d been arrested for prostitution, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and assaulting a 12-year old girl. She was also arrested twice for kidnapping children. And she tried to sell them. She allegedly practiced voodoo, and after predicting her “friend” would die in six months, she was accused of murdering said “friend” with barbiturates, even though she claimed the friend died of cervical cancer. The autopsy report sided with the barbiturates, but Taylor was never charged. And census records stated she was white, just like the rest of her family, but with Native American heritage.
What stands out most about Taylor? I'm betting it was the kidnapping, murder, or theft.
But suffice it to say, Taylor was Reagan's so-called "welfare queen." (You can read the full story HERE.)
Which begs the question - in Reagan's version, where’s the blackmarket baby trafficking? Where’s the attempted murder? Why is there no discussion of her clear psychopathy and mental instability? Why isn’t hers the story of a scam artist, or one of advocacy for mental illness?
We have to question the legitimacy of our country’s leadership when they cherry pick “welfare fraud” over kidnapping and murder.
These welfare charges were so politically motivated that they eclipsed any for homicide, to the extent that it would possibly interfere with the welfare case, and thus, she was never even charged. Instead we got “Welfare is bleeding America dry!” with Reagan demonizing an entire segment of society who were down on their luck and victims of a shitty economy.
So why spread the myth of the welfare queen?
To rile up white voters, while at the same time cutting social programs that would put more money back in the hands of the 1%. And Reagan did so by convincing the very constituents that use the programs to reject them. This accomplishes in broad daylight the unseemly activity his administration really wanted – ignoring the needs of the poor to increase the wealth of the rich.
Even today, welfare savings do not come from fraud or abuse, but only from cutting benefits.
The truth about welfare: According to data from U.S. Department of Agriculture, the majority of people who receive benefits from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in 2013 were Caucasian.
Native American: 1.2%
And white folks in red states are the primary beneficiaries – you know, the ones voting against welfare.
“Statistics reveal that the city holding the most beneficiaries of the SNAP program (a favorite target of the GOP) is 99.22% white and 95% Republican. Owsley County, Kentucky earns the lowest median household income in the country, but they are the most prolific government-takers in U.S. existence.” According to a TIME analysis of county-by-county food stamp enrollment data, GOP politicians represent more districts that majorly participate in SNAP than Democrats.
Therefore, the people conservatives target with their misinformation are the same constituents voting against their self interest.
The rhetoric was aimed at hard-working-class whites, just like…
THE WAR ON DRUGS
Richard Nixon was famously racist for such comments that African Americans “had only recently come down out of the trees,” and would only become productive citizens in about 500 years after they were “inbred.”
This racism infected his governing. According to his domestic-policy adviser, and Watergate co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The Nixon administration embraced this Southern Strategy by connecting nonwhites with the breakdown of law and order. The Reagan administration aggressively continued the practice with its “war on drugs." The result: the prison population began increasing by tenfold, similar to what happened when blacks were freed after slavery.
What few realize is that there was no drug crisis in 1982 when Reagan laid out his anti-drug campaign. Marijuana, heroin, hallucinogens, and first-time cocaine use was down or had leveled off.
So where did the 80’s drug war come from?
From Reagan’s communist paranoia, more or less.
According to Carol Anderson, professor of African American Studies at Emory, and author of White Rage:
Reagan ordered the CIA and National Security Council (NSC) to do whatever necessary to support a small band of anti-Sandinista guerrillas (AKA Contras) in Nicaragua. Reagan feared the Sandinistas were Soviet stooges fomenting a revolution. After funneling nearly 20 million dollars through the CIA to the Contras, Reagan signed a secret order authorizing Contra aid to depose the Sandinistas. The only problem was coming up with the money. They couldn’t get it from Congress. The Contras suggested trafficking cocaine into California to provide enough profit for armaments. The network was already in place, from the Medellin and Cali drug cartels in Colombia, to the money laundering in Panama by Noriega, to the landings strips in Costa Rica with little radar detection, to the drug warehouses outside San Salvador. The only problem was US law enforcement guarding key entry points. Easy fix: the CIA and NSC could run interference and keep the FBI, US Customs, and the DEA in check. Voila: the US became saturated with cocaine, except Contra wholesalers repackaged it into rocks of ‘crack,’ which was distributed through the Bloods’ and Crips’ 50,000 gang members.
If you haven’t choked on your jellybeans yet, let me break it down for you:
The crack epidemic was engineered by the Reagan administration to fund illegal arms to the Contras.
Furthermore, if Reagan had really wanted to end the drug war, then he wouldn’t have focused only on the criminal aspect of drug use by increasing funds for the FBI and DEA and by cutting funding for the National Institute on Drug Abuse from $274 million to $57 million as well as cutting the Department of Education’s anti-drug funds from $14 million to $3 million.
The administration’s priorities were clear: imprison the drug users, don’t worry about rehabilitation or prevention. Just say no to funding.
The war on drugs was the ultimate symbol of what Reaganites viewed as all that was immoral in American culture, as drugs were associated primarily with a) counter culture (hippies, who Reagan loathed from the free speech days on college campuses), b) the ghetto (i.e., minorities), and c) gay culture. (Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes' dismissively laughed when first asked about AIDS. You can hear the press conference HERE.)
The War on Drugs was the ultimate dog-whistle issue – the perfect way to instill fear in the populace and distract the public from the corporate agenda. Writes William Kleinknecht in The Man Who Sold the World, “Portraying the poor as criminals would also help win support for curtailing social welfare programs, one reason Reagan made spending on law enforcement one of two areas of government – the other being national defense – that would be exempt from budget cuts… Rather than fund programs for drug treatment, child care, job training, education, and housing, which might actually have made a difference in drug-abuse patterns, Reagan chose to militarize the cities.”
One of the greatest consequences of the War on Drugs has been mass incarceration.
Even though the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners, and it’s extremely tied to race.
White men behind bars: 1 in 106
Hispanic men behind bars: 1 in 36
Black men behind bars: 1 in 15
In The New Jim Crow, legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that more African American men are in prison now than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War.
The number of people in U.S. prisons increased from around 600,000 in 1980 to over 2 million in 2002.
Even when crime plummeted, the prison population continued to grow.
Suffice it to say, there was near-zero efficacy in reducing drug trafficking.
What creates this racially biased imprisonment?
Those without resources are more likely to commit crimes, and the poor spend more of their time in public spaces intensively policed by the state.
However, when one compares crime rates across poor males in the high crime ages of 15-18, it turns out that poor youth of color almost across the board are LESS likely to commit crimes than their white counterparts.
Poor whites typically report committing more crimes of all sorts than do minorities. But because blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor and young, they are disproportionately likely than young white men to be swept into the maw of the American crime control system.
According to scientist Cathy O'Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, “A 2013 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that while black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 made up only 4.7% of the city’s population, they counted for 40.6% of the Stop and Frisk checks by police. More than 90% of those stopped were innocent. Some of the others might have been drinking under age or carrying a joint, and unlike most rich kids, they got in trouble for it. So if early involvement with the police signals recidivism, poor people, and racial minorities look far riskier...police have a choice, they can focus exclusively on Part 1 crimes, these are the violent crimes, including homicide, arson, and assault, which are usually reported to them. But they can also broaden the focus by including Part 2 crimes, including vagrancy, aggressive panhandling, and selling and consuming small quantities of drugs. Many of these nuisance crimes would go unreported if cops weren’t there to see them. These nuisance crimes are endemic to many impoverished neighborhoods. In some places, police call them antisocial behavior, or ASB; unfortunately, including them in the model threatens to skew the analysis. Once the nuisance data flows into a predictive model, more police are drawn into those neighborhoods, where they are more likely to arrest more people. After all, even if their objective is to stop burglaries, murder, or rape, they’re bound to have slow periods. It’s the nature of patrolling. And if a patrolling cop sees a couple of kids who look no older than 16 guzzling from a bottle in a brown bag, he stops them. These types of low level crimes populate their models with more and more dots. And the models send the cops back to the same neighborhoods. This creates a pernicious feedback loop. The policing itself spawns new data, which justifies more policing. And our prisons fill up with hundreds of thousands of people found guilty of victimless crimes. Most of them come from impoverished neighborhoods, and most are black or Hispanic. So even if a model is colorblind, the result is anything but. And our largely segregated cities, geography is a highly effective proxy for race.”
And it gets worse. According to law professor Adam Benforado in Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, “Numerous studies have shown that those who have murdered a white person are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who have murdered a black person. African Americans who end up on death row are also more likely to also be executed…Black defendants are considerably more likely to receive the death penalty. They also receive higher bails, face a greater incarceration rate, and are subject to longer sentences than white defendants.”
It should also be noted that the crime levels were dropping in the early 80s, and only after Reagan’s police state policies took hold did crime increase for the next six years. Most of this crime could be attributed to the crack epidemic. Too bad we didn’t invest resources into drug rehabilitation, only anti-drug propaganda.
And too bad our inmates return to society with no education, no counseling, and no job training, yet they do have plenty of anger and psychological wounds from their prison experience, and far too often become affiliated with gangs while in the slammer.
But gangs are only a symptom, explains William Kleinknecht in The Man Who Sold the World, “The real cause of increasing crime across the country is the failure of Lockdown America. [Our] answer to dealing with a surplus population of young black men without skills to compete in the global economy was not to train and educate them but to lock them away. When the state greatly expands its power to persecute the poor and fills up prisons at a time when crime is falling…human freedom everywhere is at stake.”
In shorthand, America is so racially biased, that no Wall Street bankers serve time for ruining financial institutions and our economy, but poor pot smokers are deprived of a job, a family, rehabilitation, mental counseling, student loans, future jobs, earnings, welfare, government housing, and in some place – quite intentionally – the right to vote.
These Dog Whistle tactics use coded racial appeals to carefully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites by repeated blasts about criminals and welfare cheats, illegal aliens and sharia law – rhetoric that has only grown stronger over the last 30 years, culminating in the modern Tea Party, which is to the right of George W. Bush, who was to the right of Reagan, who was to the right of Nixon – creating a far right political skewering of the current Republican party.“So how does dog whistle racism wreck the middle class?” asks Lopez.
“Racial demagoguery convinces many whites to think about government help in terms of race, and then to reject liberalism and the lessons of the New Deal in favor of the nostrums promoted by corporate titans and loaded insiders.”
Beware of individuals and corporations that “use their power and influence to promote only their own interest, with no regard for the damage they do to the rest of us,” warns Ian Haney Lopez. “Ameliorating racial inequality is a precondition to ending racial politics. So long as society remains riven by racial divisions, racial demagoguery will remain a threat to the middle class.”
So once you’ve identified your target (lower class blacks) – and your audience (middle and lower class whites) – the next step of attack is quite simple: condemn the relevant social service programs through anti-government sentiment.
Which we’ll explore in Part 13: The Lyin’, the Rich, and the Brand Warfare