The Evolution of Racist Dog Whistles

Donald Trump, the White Supremacist-in-Chief, has used racism as a political strategy ever since he came down the golden escalator and claimed Mexican immigrants were drug dealers and rapists. Trump’s use of racist dog whistles has a long history in this country and has evolved over the decades from the Jim Crow South.

During Nixon’s 1968 campaign, a Southern politician and Nixon supporter described the evolution of “Law and Order” and other dog whistles: “looters/rioters”, “thugs”, “welfare queens”, etc. In previous decades, Southern politicians could openly say the “N” word and other racial epithets, but in the 1950s and 60s, overt racism became undignified for middle-class voters who wanted to view themselves as respectable and civilized people. They still had racial prejudices but saw overt racism as ignorant and crude. The press and political opponents were also quicker to condemn these race-baiting politicians when in the past they might have given them a pass.

The changing in attitude was because after World War II, Americans realized our system of racial oppression was not much different than the Nazi Party’s views of Aryan supremacy. The U.S. promoted itself as the arbiter of freedom and democracy, but the international community thought this to be hypocritical. Foreign visitors started frequenting the United States more and were appalled by the Jim Crow apartheid system. Even in the North, restricted covenants prevented Blacks from living in White neighborhoods and many schools were segregated. Blacks who served in the segregated army during World War II went to Europe and realized that they were treated better there than their own country. Many felt included in society for the 1st time.

Jesse Owens recalled that during the 1936 Olympics, Hitler allowed him and other Black athletes to eat with all the other Olympians, which had a strong impact on Jesse Owens because at Ohio State he was forbidden from training, living, and eating with his White teammates. In contrast, Owens struck up a friendship with superstar Luz Long, the supposed embodiment of the Aryan master race, that he maintained for the rest of his life. In a stunning turn of events, Hitler met with Owens in private and shook his hand in congratulations. Before the Olympics, Hitler had boasted that no Black man would be able to beat an Aryan in a sporting competition because of his racial inferiority. Jesse Owens made Hitler eat his words, and in commemoration of his athletic feats in Berlin, Hitler gave Owens a special Gold Medal.

After the war, the U.S. government rushed to make progress on racial equality. Thus, President Truman desegregated the army for the 1st time in 1948.

Instead of overt racism, politicians in the 50s and 60s adopted racist dog whistles in order not to offend middle-class sense of respectability. These dog whistles seem acceptable enough on the surface, but they have racist undertones and just like with a dog whistle, the phrases get the intended audience’s attention and this audience knows that this is a racist attack. For example, “Thug” is a stand-in for the “N” word.

After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked protests, Donald Trump purposely described Black demonstrators as “THUGS” in all caps to incite racism and scare Whites with the threat of Blacks protesting. Black people are labelled as “thugs” or “looters” in order to delegitimize their protests by painting them as criminals. Racist politicians also use these labels to justify and incite violence against them. In 1960s, White mobs were just as responsible for racial violence as the police. The frequent barking of “Law and Order” serves the dual-purpose of provoking fear of Black people, especially with White women, and threatening Blacks with violence if they protest. Trump, like the Jim Crow politicians of old, wants Black people to cower and stay in line.

During the 1968 election, all Nixon had to do was repeat “Law and Order” and voters’ racial prejudices would be enflamed. White voters would be reminded of their fear of crime and racial integration. Whites would also view Civil Rights protests as delegitimate and excessive, which allowed them to rationalize force to stop them. Nixon accomplished all this with dog whistles and could not be smeared for being racist himself. He watched his ad that declared “Security is the 1st Civil Right” and said, “This hits it on the head, it’s about those damn Blacks and Puerto-Rican gangs.”

Nixon maintained his image as a unifying statesman while Governor George Wallace disgraced himself by openly talking about how intermarriage would be bad for both Black and White people because it is better for them to stay apart. Donald Trump thinks he is Richard Nixon and can scare suburban voters with the threat of Black “mobs” and low-income housing, but Trump has followed the path of George Wallace and on November 3rd, the American people will be the ones enforcing “Law and Order”.

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