8 Sneaky Racial Code Words and Why Politicians Love Them  

A guide to manipulating bigotry to support an agenda, while insisting you didn’t mention race.

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3. 'Forced Busing'

López calls this phrase, which, on its face, was racially neutral, "the Northern analog of states' rights," which "allowed the North to express fevered opposition to integration without having to mention race." After all, kids had been bused to school for quite a while. It was only when the plan took on a racial edge that it became controversial. Politicians didn't have to say that outright, though—they simply dropped in the phrase to trigger resentment and gain supporters.

4. 'Cut Taxes'

Dog-whistle politics is partly about demonizing people of color, but it's also about demonizing government in a way that helps the very rich, says López. So, when Ronald Regan said "cut taxes," what he was communicating to the middle class was, "so your taxes won't be wasted on minorities." A key Reagan operative admitted as much in an interview quoted in Lopez's book, saying, " 'We want to cut taxes' … is a whole lot more abstract than, 'Nigger, nigger.' " It continues to be more abstract, and it continues to work.

5. 'Law and Order'

This phrase, says López, is a way to draw on an image of minorities as criminals that was used by both Reagan and Clinton. He points to an inverse relationship in Congress between conversations about civil rights and criminal law enforcement. "What you see in the 1960s is that opposition to civil rights becomes 'what we really need is law and order, to crack down'. " Of course, the latter is less controversial and, at least on its surface, avoids the issue of race.

6. 'Welfare' and 'Food Stamps'

Welfare, says López, was broadly supported during the New Deal era when it was understood that people could face hardships in their lives that sometimes required government assistance, and, in fact, was purposely limited to white recipients. In this context, it wasn't heavily stigmatized. Fast-forward to the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson made it clear that he wanted it to have a racial-justice component. "Then it becomes possible for conservatives to start painting welfare as a transfer of wealth to minorities," says Lopez. Remember those Reagan speeches about welfare queens? Today, says López, we hear "food stamps" used similarly.

7. 'Shariah Law'

We first started hearing about this alleged threat to American justice in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, says López, when the Bush administration became intent on linking the war in Iraq to hijackers who were from Saudi Arabia. "To get there, you convince America that this threat is internal as well—new brown immigrants who are threatening the heartland," he says. "A prime example is Kansas prohibiting courts from drawing on Shariah law—it's not a threat at all. The point isn't the reality; it's the racial frame. The point is, these brown Muslim people are infiltrating our country, so be afraid, and vote for politicians who will support the right wing."

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