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Sept. 22, 2017

The basic mechanism of what Berkeley political scientist Ian Haney Lopez calls “dog whistle politics” is simple: call upon the anxiety or fear of minorities that already resides not-so-far beneath the surface, divide class interests, and win elections. “Dog whistles” are what Lopez terms political catch-phrases that don’t explicitly mention race but are ultimately used to refer to people of color and the various threats they apparently command.  

In his acclaimed book on dog whistle politics, Lopez charts the history of this winning political strategy starting from the post-Civil Rights era. After formal segregation laws and racist restrictions on immigration were largely put to rest, African Americans and other people of color saw their access to equality and opportunity grow—if only in the legal sense. From a societal perspective, these changes also contributed to growing anxiety in white communities, many of whom were concerned about a fast-changing social order and tangible racial changes within their own neighborhoods. 

Politicians, Lopez writes, sought to “harness and then foment this seething sense of insecurity” to garner votes and satisfy the billionaires funding their campaigns with their own particular goal: lowering government involvement in their economic activities. Republicans, but also Democrats, began campaigning on ominous phrases like “inner city crime” and “the silent majority,” both of which nodded to race and the scary implications of racial change, all the while spinning a larger narrative of decent white folks under siege by violent and dangerous minorities. 

Yet, Lopez emphasized, this was not just bigotry—it was strategy. “Keeping minorities in their place was never the main point,” he wrote. “Instead, the goal was to win elections...This required stoking resentment not only against nonwhites but also against activist government, which was painted as coddling minorities with welfare while refusing to control them through lax criminal laws and weak border enforcement”—and at the same time stifling white Americans’ ability reach economic prosperity. 

Ultimately, Lopez concluded, political and economic elites exploited fear of the Other to “hijack government for their own benefit.” Politicians strategically and effectively distracted voters from recognizing the threat of increasing concentrations of wealth and power by blaming minorities for their own violence, laziness, or lack of intelligence—despite the fact that the threat of growing inequality not only remains but has been fully realized today, as our nation boasts one of the highest rates of economic inequality in the developed world. 

Today, politicians like Donald Trump continue to play on racial anxieties (by accusing Mexican immigrants of bringing “rapists,” falsely claiming Muslims cheered after the 9/11 attacks, describing inner-city Chicago as “worse than the Middle East,” etc.). While many of his policies are indeed devastating to communities of color, Trump may be the ultimate bearer of further wealth divides. By relying on widespread anxiety towards people of color, Trump may effectively pass an economic agenda that ultimately hurts all Americans, white, Black, Asian, and otherwise—except of course, for perhaps the top 1 percent. 

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.