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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Rep. Paul Ryan at the CPAC conference, on March 6, 2014, in National Harbor, Md.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When Paul Ryan talked about a "real culture problem" in "our inner cities in particular" this week, he wasn't the first American politician to be slammed for using racially coded language to get a point across. Far from it.

Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, says it's not just the promotion of old-fashioned racial stereotypes that we need to worry about. Rather, he argues, it's the manipulation of racism in service of very specific goals.

López's book focuses on elected officials' ability to tap into bias without being explicit about it, all to gain support for what he calls "regressive policies," which, ironically, hurt working-class white people as much as people of color.

"This sort of coded speech operates on two levels," he says. "It triggers racial anxiety and it allows plausible deniability by crafting language that lets the speaker deny that he's even thinking about race."

It's disturbing and frustrating, and more than ever, it's what racism sounds like and how politics works.

To understand how outright racist language has gone underground but is working as hard as ever to drum up support for conservative policies, the author says, you just have to look at this list of sneaky code words and phrases that politicians throughout history have loved, and what they really mean:

1. 'Inner City'

Ryan's statement, which he later said he regretted, is a perfect example of the way public expressions of racism have evolved, says López. "You can't publicly say black people don't like to work, but you can say there's an inner-city culture in which generations of people don't value work." The goal here, he says, isn't to demonize minorities—far from it—but to demonize a government that helps the middle class (and if the people Americans have historically associated with inner cities have to be used in the process, so be it).  

2. 'States' Rights'

Totally innocent and nonracial, right? Not so much. López says we first heard this from Barry Goldwater, who was running on a very unpopular platform critical of the New Deal, during the 1964 presidential election. "He makes the critical decision to use coded racial appeals, trying to take advantage of rising racial anxiety in the face of the civil rights movement," says López. In other words, while "states' rights" is a pretty racially neutral issue, you just have to look at what was happening at the moment to realize that everyone knew it translated to the right of states to resist federal mandates to integrate schools and society.

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