Review: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class

(Ian Haney López, Oxford University Press, 2014)

On the one hand, I love this book, and I think it’s terrifically important. On the other, I was disappointed in its lack of scope. That conflict makes this a hard book to review.

Lopez highlights an incredibly important and yet equally underreported phenomenon – the use of ‘dog-whistle’ rhetoric in the political sphere. “Dog-whistle” rhetoric is a sort of coded political speech, where some pundit or politician uses terms that to most seem vague, innocuous, or even like mere filler.

But to audiences that know the terminology, those terms come loaded with meaning. So, like a dog whistle is audible only by dogs, but is unheard by the rest of us, these encoded messages are heard by their intended audiences but missed by the rest of us. Lopez makes this phenomenon understandable, and visible, and for that alone, this book deserves praise. Almost by definition, these coded messages represent unpopular or extremist positions; otherwise, why encode them. And this happens in our contemporary political conversation ALL THE TIME. That’s why I think this book is so very important.

However, at the risk of sounding like an apologist for racial privilege or like I’m undervaluing the racial dimension of this kind of thing, it was disappointing to see Lopez discuss this phenomenon exclusively in terms of race. Certainly, it happens a lot on issues of race and white privilege; particularly since 2008 and the Obama presidency. And I don’t want to de-emphasize that fact; it’s there, and it’s important. But this kind of dog-whistle messaging occurs across a lot of issues. And many of these issues are, I think, just as important as race. In fact, many are closely tied to race. The far-right Christian political dialog is absolutely loaded with this kind of coded language, and certainly, a lot of it is about race. But a lot of it is not, and it is just as important.

I realize this may be a small quibble; steps forward are steps forward, after all. And Lopez is clear, convincing, and authoritative in bringing this slice of the phenomenon to the table. And I get that other uses of this message style are outside his academic purview. But a chapter gesturing to other uses would certainly not go amiss, and would not have stretched Lopez’s credibility. Generally, then, this book is a great place to start exploring the hidden and targeted messages that go unheard in our national conversation. Just don’t stop here – there is more to see.

In that sense, then, Lopez seems to accomplish his goals; he makes a clear and credible case for the existence of such coded rhetoric, and he masterfully supports his contention about how this dog-whistle politics incorporates issues of race. In this regard, both non-academic readers and students of multicultural issues or race relations will definitely benefit from this work. This book can also provide an entry-point to the issue, as well as a model for how to effectively introduce sensitive and controversial political tactics for academic readers at more advanced levels. Readers at any level with either broader interests or different areas of focus will certainly benefit from the presentation of the methodology but will need to investigate other authors (or do their own research; never a bad thing), to appreciate the same tactics applied in other circumstances and to other issues.

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