by Robert Kraig, executive director
In this blog we explore one of the most daunting obstacles to progressive reform: the right’s exploitation of strategic racism to divide the electorate and turn many white Americans against their own self-interest.
In an earlier message blog, Progressives Are Drowning in Facts, I briefly summarized the impressive body of research revealing that persuasion often takes places before we are consciously aware of it.
One of the most important implications of this emerging understanding of the human mind is the destructive power of coded racial appeals which skirt beneath the level of consciousness. Since the triumph of the civil rights movement, racially coded language has become one of the primary tactics conservative elites use to divide white Americans and spur them to support policies which close opportunity and hollow out the middle class.
This thesis is argued persuasively in a chapter in Drew Westen’s insightful book on modern persuasion, The Political Brain, and in an important recent book by Ian Haney Lopez, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.
Coded racial appeals are words and images put in a linguistic context which triggers strong racialized emotions (fears, anxieties, stereotypes, anger at alleged group violations of social norms) without being overt enough to spark conscious recognition by the target audience. Context is critically important. As in all meaning, context is controlling. The same words and images can trigger racialized emotions in some contexts and not in others.
Some parts of the code, because of a history of usage, are more overtly racialized and therefore skirt close to the line of conscious recognition. Examples are terms which have already been politicized and therefore have become signifier of racial stereotypes, such as welfare, ghetto, food stamps, and drug dealers. But seemingly more racially neutral terms such as urban, dependence, and poverty can easily take on racial connotations in certain linguistic contexts. Even seemingly positive political slogans such as Bill Clinton’s people who play by the rules can convey the idea of a racialized other: the people who do not play by the rules.
A crucial difference between an overt racial appeal and coded racism is that the latter depends for its power on its denial. Because of the Civil Rights Movement, crude racial idioms of the old Jim Crow type are no longer socially acceptable. This is not to say that many conservative communicators, such as the worst of the right-wing cable news and radio talkers, don’t know full well that they are exploiting race. However, for much of their audience, an overt appeal based on race would be far less effective.
Drew Westen and Ian Haney Lopez both cite fascinating social science research which shows raising the question of whether a communication is racist into conscious discussion, even when it is done by a source who is not highly creditable for the target audience, dramatically reduces its persuasiveness. A Harvard University study, for example, found that George Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 election suffered a dramatic reduction in its appeal to voters once Jesse Jackson publicly called it racist and generated massive news coverage raising the question. Despite the fact that much of the coverage was tilted against Jackson, just raising the question of whether the ad was racist into public consciousness dramatically diminished its persuasiveness.
This strongly suggest a strategy for forcing coded racism out in the open. If we allow it to remain coded and therefore unacknowledged and unchallenged, we allow strategic racism to continue to be a major weapon in the right’s communication arsenal. The approach of the Democratic political establishment has been quite the opposite. The Dukakis Campaign begged Jesse Jackson not to raise the race issue, fearing it would bring more attention to the attack ads. Even leading progressive messaging experts such as George Lakoff counsel avoidance. Lakoff told me when he visited Wisconsin last year that the best approach to coded racism is to build up the progressive version of freedom without specifically focusing on race. (In fairness, he showed great interest in what I had to say about code racism, so his view may be evolving).
To the contrary, I am convinced progressives need a strategy to unmask coded racial appeals if we are ever to achieve the social unity we need for robust progressive reform that opens up opportunity and also dramatically reduces the shameful racial disparities in our society. As long as strategic racism is covert enough to be deniable, and not even recognized by much of the audience, it will exert a malign influence on American politics.
I am not proposing that this be done in an ad hoc manner. As Ian Haney Lopez discusses trenchantly in his book, conservatives have developed formidable defenses. When critiqued for exploiting racial divisions, conservatives react with what Lopez calls a “kick,” a forceful counter accusation that the critic has “played the race card.” These forceful rebuttals are designed to immediately discredit the messenger and to turn the tables, asserting that it is progressives who want to make everything about race. Once a conservative is forced to resort to the kick, race has been brought into conscious discussion, a critical step. But conservatives can and do often win these battles by appealing to the white public’s strong desire to believe the cultural myth that we now live in a in a “post racial” or “colorblind” society which rewards merit, regardless of ethnic background.
Given the strategic necessity of forcing strategic racism into the open, and the formidable conservative defenses which are deployed when ever we do, what progressives need is a sustained and disciplined strategy. It should have the following features.
First, just as the Civil Rights Movement carefully chose Rosa Parks as an ideal messenger for challenging the Jim Crow laws segregating public accommodations, progressive organizations need to build the capacity to choose the best cases of code racism, have in place a plan to win each controversy that is generated, including a plan to deal with the inevitable kick-back by conservatives.
Second, the strategy must be constant, not episodic. The human associative mind, which unconsciously directs our reactions to mass communication, only changes over time through constant repetition. What we need is a communication system that constantly calls out coded racial appeals, wins the ensuing conscious debate, and is repeated over and over until conservatives are deterred from relying on this communication strategy.
The strategic communication campaign to flush out the new racism will take a long time, because the code will shift over time, becoming more and more covert. Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen is no longer coded, which is why a Scott Walker uses slightly subtler terms like dependency. The code is different now than it was in 1972 or 1992. It stays ahead of the evolution of public race consciousness. Eventually, if progressives can implement a sustained strategy, and build it to scale, strategic racism will be driven so far back in the unconscious mind that it will lose its nefarious grip on American politics.
Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, holds a PhD in Rhetoric (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and has published a number of articles and a book on American public discourse. He is part of a major new project to transform Wisconsin progressive communication which is a partnership between Citizen Action of Wisconsin, High Ground Institute, and Wisconsin Voices. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org