An Epidemic of Racist Dog-Whistling (and Not Only by Gingrich)

Does anyone doubt that we're in the middle of one of the most race-poisoned elections in recent history? In my Bloomberg View column this week, I write about the phenomenon of dog-whistling, opening with a description of what you could learn about black people if you only listened to Republican candidates and Republican-oriented commentators:

Black people have lost the desire to perform a day's work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them something because they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps. And the pathologies afflicting black Americans are caused partly by the Democratic Party, which has created in them a dependency on government not dissimilar to the forced dependency of slaves on their owners.

Some of these arguments are embedded in dog-whistles:

The genius of dog-whistling is its deniability. It would be difficult for a figure such as Rush Limbaugh to run for public office, given his record of fairly straightforward race-baiting. (Limbaugh, who in the words of Harvard Law School's Randall Kennedy is an "excellent entrepreneur of racial resentment," has been on a tear lately. He has accused Obama -- who he says "talks honky" around white people -- and the first lady of abusing public funds as payback for the ill-treatment afforded their ancestors.)

But "food-stamp president" is just indirect enough that Gingrich is protected from detrimental blowback, at least during the largely white Republican primaries

Here is Juan Williams, writing in The Hill, who was attacked by Newt Gingrich for stating the obvious:

The former Speaker has declared that black people should demand jobs instead of food stamps. And he has proposed having poor students work as janitors in their high schools. Regardless of how they were intended, poor people and minorities sense that with those comments Gingrich is winking -- some call it "dog whistling" -- at certain white audiences by intimating that black people are lazy, happy to live off the government and lacking any intellect.

Gingrich did not answer my question but rather threw red meat to Republicans in South Carolina, a state with a long history of racial politics.

He used the same rhetorical technique of the segregationist politicians of the past: rejecting the premise of the question, attacking the media and playing to the American people's resentment of liberal elites, minorities and poor people.

In the days since the debate, people have asked if I regretted the way I phrased the question. I do not. I do not know anyone on food stamps who would prefer them to gainful employment.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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