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‘The truth will set you free’: Racist dogwhistles in political speech

26 May 2021

Dean Turner

‘The truth will set you free’: Racist dogwhistles in political speech

A dogwhistle is a message which communicates aspects of a speaker’s political ideology to an ingroup in a way that is not understandable to an outgroup. One famous example of this can be found in a line from George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address:

“Yet there’s power—wonder-working power—in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.”

Most listeners would struggle to find any extra significant meaning in this sentence. However, the term “wonder-working power” is used in an Evangelical Christian hymn, and thus has associations that will only be recognised if the listener possesses this special background knowledge. Through the use of this term in his address, Bush covertly signalled to Evangelical Christians that he was ‘one of them’ by using their idiolect. Evangelicals who picked up on this specific turn of phrase would then recognise Bush as a religious conservative politician they could trust to advance their specific political interests.

Dogwhistles are a disturbingly relevant political tool, increasingly used by politicians to manipulate people in covert ways, ways that could be exposed and resisted were the manipulation more explicit and overt. Indeed, the focus of much analysis of political speech is grounded in what politicians overtly say. However, we have to bear in mind that much political speech is constructed by what exactly politicians do not say. We miss some of the most malicious acts of political speech if we are not aware of the dogwhistle strategy. For example, in the state of the Union address, Bush did not say something like:

“I have the same goals and values as fundamentalist Christians.”

This much is obvious. Yet the function of the use of the dogwhistle is essentially to say this without saying it, in a way that appears inconspicuous to the outgroup, and directly appeals to the ingroup.

Dogwhitsles have historically been used in a racist context, drawing on attitudes that people may reject on the surface, and yet still harbour deep down. They are consciously crafted by politicians (and their advisors) to provoke controversy without attracting negative attention. We have seen the example of the phrase drawn from a hymn, but additionally ‘family values’ may also be used to signal to Christian voters that a candidate supports religious social conservatism, for example. In the US, allusions to the ‘inner-city’ and ‘black-on-black crime’ are used by politicians to draw up stereotypical images of people of colour in the minds of racists. Another may be the use of the phrase ‘international banks’ to signal to racists that a candidate is antisemitic without alienating non-antisemitic supporters. These are but a handful of some of the more recognisable examples of dogwhistle racism.

We would not be mistaken for thinking that much of this language appears normal and unproblematic to the majority, but it communicates specific things to its intended audiences. Accusations of dogwhistling are, by their nature, hard to prove. This is what makes the dogwhistle so attractive. Politicians can appeal to racists without actually having to be overtly racist themselves. And if and when they are criticised for using this language, racism can be very easily disavowed. Indeed, the increased use of dogwhistles is partially a consequence of overt racist speech becoming less tolerable in society. However, racism in acts of political speech, whether overt or covert, is still very much present. I argue that covert racist speech has much more disastrous consequences.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush (father of the Bush discussed above) was running for president. His campaign team ran an attack ad against his rival, Michael Dukakis, for being soft on crime. Dukakis, the then-governor of Massachusetts, supported his state’s ‘weekend pass’ program, which allowed incarcerated people to leave prison for a day. The ad weaponised the story of William Horton, who managed to escape while on a weekend furlough, raped a woman and murdered her fiancé. It is now synonymous with dogwhistle racism. The ad used Horton’s mugshot and shortened his name to ‘Willie.’ These two elements, used in conjunction with a list of his crimes created the most successful racist dogwhistle.

It is much more difficult to challenge racism if it is presented in the form of a dogwhistle, as in the case of the ‘Willie Horton’ ad. If it is explicitly asserted that:

“Black men are dangerous criminals who should be in prison and my rival is less racist than me so they cannot be trusted to keep you safe,”

Then the racism is plainly obvious and very easy to point out. However, the candidate who produces such an ad will have to rely on the votes of only the most openly racist members of the population, among other negative consequences for racist speech. The ‘Willie Horton’ ad is very different. It contains no overtly racist assertions and does not once mention Horton’s ethnicity or explicitly link it to his crimes. Politicians can, and did, easily deny that the ad was racist or that they had racist intentions when producing it. Technically, all they have done is show a mugshot, shorten a name, and list someone’s crimes.

Once again, it is what is not being said that we should pay attention to. Most viewers will be blissfully unaware that they have watched an ad that plays on their implicit biases, and may even go on to support racist candidates and parrot their racist views without consciously acknowledging the racism inherent in their actions. They may even baulk at the mere suggestion of racial bias, while those who are consciously racist have their biases confirmed for them through the use of coded language. It is a very insidious strategy of manipulation that can accomplish these two things at once.

We should develop tools so that we can be mindful of dogwhistles and call them out when we notice them. In some senses, once we can recognise what constitutes a dogwhistle, they are relatively easy to challenge: all someone needs to do is to make explicit what has so far been only implicit, to make overt what has been kept covert. The dogwhistler may not back down or apologise, but at least their language has been rendered understandable to allow those who are not part of the ingroup to draw independently formed conclusions about what is actually being said.

On the other hand, we should not assume that racism is always deemed impermissible when it is made plain for people to recognise. In some cases, this may be true. In others, it may not. Furthermore, centuries of violence and exploitation are not undone by pointing out a dogwhistle, and the concrete realities of a society shaped by racism remain. We should not mistake the mere challenge to an act of speech to be more powerful than it is. Certainly, we should work to eliminate racism at its very roots first and foremost. But we may find ourselves in a more advantageous position once we better understand the strategies employed by those who wish to perpetuate racist systems. Accordingly, it is essential to be mindful of dogwhitsles, and to expose them when we are in a position to do so.