Whitewashing Paul Ryan’s dog whistle racism

photo via colorlines.com
photo via colorlines.com

In the uproar following Paul Ryan’s comments about a “culture in our inner cities in particular of men not working,” several (white) people have stepped forward to defend him against the “smear” that his statements were racist. Anyone who can listen to this kind of rhetoric from a politician, Democratic or Republican, and not notice racial cues is (often willfully)  ignorant about this country’s history of racism and dog whistle politics.

It’s hard to imagine that Ryan and Bennett moved onto this topic because they thought their conservative audience was particularly concerned with urban poverty. The most obvious sign that there is a racist connection to Ryan’s arguments comes from the author he cites. Charles Murray has been roundly condemned for his racist theories about poverty in black communities. As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo:

When you start off by basing your arguments around the work of Charles Murray you just lose your credibility from the start as someone actually interested in addressing poverty or joblessness or really doing anything other than coming up with reasons to cut off what little assistance society provides for its most marginalized members or, alternatively, pumping up people with racial resentments against black people and giving them ersatz ‘scholarship’ to justify their racial antipathies.

That’s because Murray’s public career has been based on pushing the idea that black urban poverty is primarily the fault of black people and their diseased ‘culture.’ Relatedly, and more controversially, he has argued that black people are genetically inferior to white people and other notional races with regards to intelligence. Yes, that last part should be crystal clear: Murray is best known for attempting to marshal social science evidence to argue that black people are genetically not as smart as white people.

But even if Ryan hadn’t referred to the work of a blatantly racist author, you could still detect the subtle cues that are meant to rally white voters. Bill Moyers recently did a great interview with historian Ian Haney Lopez about his new book on dog whistle politics. Lopez explains:

And the idea that I’m trying to get across here is, racism has evolved. Or, in particular, public racism has evolved. The way in which racism, the way in which racial divisions are stoked in public discourse has changed. And now it operates on two levels. On one level, it allows plausible deniability. This isn’t really about race, it’s just about welfare. Just about food stamps. And on another, there’s a subtext, an underground message which can be piercingly loud, and that is: minorities are threatening us.

And so when people dog whistle about criminals, welfare cheats, terrorists, Islam, Sharia law, ostensibly they’re talking about culture, behavior, religion, but underneath are these old stereotypes of degraded minorities, but also, and this is important, implicitly of whites who are trustworthy, hard-working, decent.

Think about it: have you ever heard anyone use the phrase “inner city” in a way that didn’t have a racial tinge? What kind of people do you think Bennett’s audience pictured when he talked about inner city men who don’t want to work?

In an age when blatant racism has become less acceptable, politicians from both parties have found a way to push the same buttons without taking responsibility for stoking people’s worst instincts for political gain. The more we draw attention to it, and push back against those who would defend it, the closer we get to eliminating it from our political lexicon.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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