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Dog Whistle Politics

Challenging racial and economic injustice depends on the recognition that racism is more than prejudice by one individual against another. It is a way to structure society, the economy and government.

This is most evident in politics. Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement transformed society by ending formal segregation laws and racist restrictions on immigration. However, these changes contributed to a rising anxiety among some made nervous by racial change, and politicians capitalized on this seething sense of insecurity and tailored their campaigns to scare voters.

They did so by dog whistling: using coded terms like “inner city crime” and “silent majority," terms that didn't explicitly mention race but were charged with racial undercurrents. They painted pictures of decent whites under threat from dangerous minorities. They demonized blacks as criminals and welfare cheats; more recently, dog whistling has expanded to include Latinos as illegal aliens, Muslims as terrorists, and it is also used as in culture wars to attack sexual orientation minorities and women.

Yet for all its ugliness, this is not bigotry; it is a strategy politicians use to win elections and satisfy the demands of the billionaires funding political campaigns. Powerful elites intentionally use the politics of fear and division to hijack government for their own benefit. By pandering to racial anxiety and enflaming hatred against government, they distract voters from recognizing the threat posed by increasing concentrations of wealth and power.

Unions must mobilize to defeat racism because it brutalizes union members and also because it destroys solidarity. It’s time to stop segregating the race problem as one that harms only minorities. When racism triumphs, all workers lose.

This paper, Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics , explains and offers a response to the gravest threat facing the labor movement and indeed our democracy: the power of wealthy elites to use racial scapegoating to turn working people against each other and against good government, allowing them to seize ever more wealth and power while hollowing out the working class.

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