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Martin Dyckman: Voters respond to politicians' racist 'dog whistles'

His name was Arthur.

I remember no one else from the third grade, and I had forgotten him until beginning what was the most difficult of all my college term papers even though it required no research.

We were to write down everything we could remember about our attitudes toward black people.

“Nobody but me will read it,” said Dr. Lewis Killian, who taught a course in race relations at Florida State University, still all-white in the 1950s.

Then I remembered. Arthur and a little girl who sat beside him in the last row were the only black children in our large second-grade classroom in Spring Valley, New York. Whenever something went wrong the others usually blamed Arthur.

Then it was my turn.

Someone was missing something and I piped up.

“Maybe Arthur did it,” I said.

The stricken look on his face haunts me.

Ours was a Jewish family, raised mostly in New York City, proudly liberal. My grandfather spoke of having known Eugene Debs. I had never heard anyone voice prejudices unless it was in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what racism was.

So how could I say something so unfair, so hurtful, without even thinking about it?

The answer came to me while reading Dog Whistle Politics, a powerful book by Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, which explains how racism is so ingrained in the United States as to infect even those who consciously deplore it.

The book addresses how Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and other non-Southern conservative politicians have used code words and subtly themed strategies – dog whistles that exploit this human frailty – for the calculated purpose of destroying the liberal agenda and turning millions of Americans against policies such as universal healthcare that would be to everyone’s benefit.

Think welfare. What image comes to mind – despite the fact that most beneficiaries are white? To ask the question is to answer why Bill Clinton was able to pull off “welfare reform” but fell flat on his face over healthcare. López considers even Clinton a dog-whistle politician.

Think crime. What image comes to mind – despite the fact that most criminals are white? To ask the question is to understand why crack cocaine draws hard time but the courts wink at the powdered stuff favored by wealthy whites and why America leads the world in incarceration.

Think immigration. What faces come to mind? Not likely the Canadians who overstay their visas, or the millions of us white-skinned Caucasians whose ancestors arrived before there were quotas.

The overt racism of George Wallace is mostly history. So is the barely disguised racism to which Ronald Reagan appealed when he spoke of “a strapping young buck” buying steaks with food stamps. Although he dropped that phrase, there was enormous symbolism in the opening of his 1980 campaign at Philadelphia, MS, a Ku Klux Klan rat’s nest near where three civil rights workers had been murdered, before a crowd raucously cheering Reagan’s declaration in favor of “state’s rights” – the oldest of the dog whistles.

Dog-whistle politicians understand that most people don’t want to think they are racist. The Willie Horton ad that derailed Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign didn’t need to mention that the rapist was black or his victims white; it simply showed Horton’s picture.

Yet, as López explains, a competent survey showed that the ad began to lose some of its effectiveness with white voters once Dukakis and other Democrats began to denounce it for the racist ploy that it was. Dog whistle politics “succeed with most whites only so long as the racial appeals stay below conscious recognition,” López writes.

Think about it. No president of our era has evoked such venomous disrespect and hatred as Barack Obama. The Tea Party would not exist but for him, but I doubt there is one member in a hundred to realize let alone admit that race is the reason. Republican politicians who persist in trying to mock and minimize the Obama presidency are riding a whirlwind, whether they know or pretend not to know what ugliness they are validating.

López faults even Obama for trying to practice colorblind politics because “It’s colorblindness that provides crucial cover” to the dog whistlers. “Colorblindness allows conservatives to insist that race means blood and nothing more, so that references to culture and behavior cannot be about race.

“And it’s colorblindness that promotes the claim that racism only exists when someone confesses to malice or uses an epithet, so that coded speech is never racism so long as it remains in code.”

Space does not permit a column like this to do full justice to López’s searing book.

Whoever wants to understand what has been happening to this country should read it.

If you do, be prepared to learn something unsettling about yourself.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Western North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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