Actor Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace in the film Selma
The film Selma is a complex portrait of the people behind the Voting Rights Act. The film’s end includes the tragic portrayal of Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the principal antagonists in the film. If you haven’t seen the film, Wallace was the staunch segregationist who proclaimed “…segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” In a bit of poetic justice, the film shows that Wallace attempted to win the Presidency four times and lost each one.
Though portrayed a defeated and powerless man, Wallace’s career wasn’t a failure. Wallace popularized dog whistle politics and helped redefine the center of American politics. His use of dog whistling during his quest for political power before and after Selma drove a political and electoral wedge between poor, working- and middle-class White folks and Black folks.
What do I mean by dog whistle politics?
Dog whistles, in the literal sense, are sonic devices that, when used, can only be heard by certain animals, like dogs. Dog whistle politics are appeals to the public that are not explicitly racist, but contain code words and symbols that evoke race in the minds of the general public, e.g. “welfare queen”. Elected officials and political candidates use these appeals to achieve a political goal, whether it is winning political office or moving a bill. In 2008, we at CSI documented and examined the ways in which race was used in subtle ways up to the 2008 elections in Stop Dog Whistle Racism.
In his book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney-Lopez describes the techniques of dog whistle politics as a series of three moves:
- A punch that jabs race into a conversation through coded or veiled references meant to signify a threat by non-Whites, e.g. “illegal aliens”;
- A parry that dismisses charges of racial pandering, e.g. “I’m not being racist”;
- And then a kick that says the critic is actually the one being racist, e.g. “reverse racist!”
Sound familiar? You can thank Wallace and his successors for these techniques.
How did Wallace popularize Dog Whistle Politics?
Prior to the Movement, Wallace was not vehemently racist. But, after running for Alabama Governor for the first time, he quickly learned that he couldn’t win unless he stirred up racial resentment. Wallace was elected in 1962 riding on a pro-segregation platform.
As the Civil Rights Movement changed hearts and minds, Governor Wallace understood that he could no longer be explicitly racist to win higher office. Through a process of trial and error, Wallace developed language that would speak to the racial anxieties of Whites, while seemingly on the surface appearing to be race neutral. Terms like states’ rights, limited federal government, and law and order became codes to oppose the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and to secure White votes.
Most persuasively, Wallace argued that the federal government had no authority to infringe on a Southern way of life – a repackaging of the same arguments Southerners used towards the end of slavery and during Reconstruction. Through blustery speeches, Wallace positioned Southern men as the “realest” Americans, connecting their struggles as a fight for freedom and liberty. This tactic shifted racial identities and political identities. Despite his losses in his Presidential runs, he garnered significant votes, including in the North, pulling both working- and middle-class White people together as collective victims of an overreaching government. Because of the effectiveness of his tactics, Wallace also succeeded in pulling his political opponents, like then candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, more towards dog whistle politics.
In an interview in 1981, Lee Atwater, advisor to former President Nixon summed up the power of dog whistle politics thusly:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N**, n**, n**.” By 1968 you can’t say “n**” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N**, n**.
Though Wallace never won the Presidency, his strategy lives on. During his time, he forced more moderate politicians to use dog whistle politics, which, because of its effectiveness, became a central political strategy to chip away at the public sector and consolidate power. He split the Democratic Party and opened up conservatism to poor, working- and middle-class White people.
We can see Wallace’s influence well after his career. Though explicit racism has, for the most part, become less of an issue, dog whistle politics, aided by mainstream media, continue to stoke implicit biases against Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian people in order to move political agendas.
When former President Reagan wanted to limit government spending, he conjured the image of a Cadillac-driving welfare queen. He did not have to say explicitly that he was referring to a Black woman because of years of dog whistle politics. Riding on the successful politics of dog whistling, former President Bill Clinton pushed to “end welfare as a way of life” and the ramp up the “War on Crime”, capitalizing on stereotypes that most Black people are dependent on welfare and are more prone to crime. Fast forward to 2012 when Newt Gingrich called President Obama the “Food Stamp President”, stoking irrational fears that Obama would give handouts to Black people. Today, when people emphasize law and order during massive protests for #BlackLivesMatter, they are implicitly stirring up images of violent Black people which discredits Black communities’ demands for justice in the face of consistent police brutality.
This tactic is effective. Equipped with dog whistle politics, we’ve seen conservatism chip away at the social safety set and other pillars of the middle class as the nation experiences the largest racial wealth gap in decades. This hurts all Americans including White people, but especially people who are Latino, Black, Asian or Indigenous. Moreover, dog whistle politics concentrates wealth in the hands of the very few by driving a wedge among constituencies who could organize together for policies that support poor, working- and middle-class individuals and families across race.
The story about race post-Selma is a story about political power and the desire to wield it. To be clear, dog whistle politics isn’t about capital “R” racists; it also isn’t about using the words themselves; it’s about people using race as a wedge to achieve a political outcome.
To get to healthy and vibrant communities for all of us we need to know how we got here and work to move hearts and minds to support policies that push us towards equal opportunity, fairness and justice. This requires community organizing and support for strategic communications. Naming race and is essential to combat the flood of dog whistle messages that make it harder for us to do our work.
We will be releasing our newest report on communicating about race this month. Join our newsletter to get it as soon as it’s released.