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UH Law Center Spring 2021 External Workshop Series: Berkeley Law Professor López discusses dog whistle politics, race, and class

Professor Ian Haney López of the University of Berkeley School of Law served as the third speaker of the University of Houston Law Center's 2021 External Workshop Series.

Professor Ian Haney López of the University of Berkeley School of Law served as the third speaker of the University of Houston Law Center's 2021 External Workshop Series.

Feb. 22, 2021 - The University of Houston Law Center recently welcomed Professor Ian Haney López of the University of Berkeley School of Law, as he discussed his book, "Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America."

López began by talking about “dog whistle politics,” or the tactic of using coded meanings and phrases that trigger racist stereotypes. He showed this practice goes back at least as far as 1963 when Barry Goldwater was campaigning and used phrases such as “states’ rights” to appeal to voters in southern states who were agitated by the Civil Rights Movement and wanted to resist federal orders.

López said this tactic is evident in the Trump era, with phrases like “illegal aliens” and “make America great again.” Although Trump wasn’t saying things directly or using racial slurs or epithets, he said, the terms triggered racial thinking and evoked certain bigoted images in a less obvious way.

“Underneath, dog whistle politics perpetuate racist thinking but also allow plausible deniability,” he said.

Further in the lecture, López discussed the implications of such tactics and the ongoing class war in America. He said a few wealthy people holding the vast majority of the world’s wealth is not sustainable.

“The main weapon of the rich in the class war that they’re winning is shattering social solidarity,” he said. “They recognize the power of the many, and so promote racial conflict and sexism. Class war is fundamentally anti-democratic, as it sees democracy as a threat.”

He also cited the relationship between skepticism about climate change, on the one hand, and distrust of government on the other. He explained that re-regulating the marketplace is key in order to save the planet and reverse the current slide toward climate collapse.

During the question-and-answer period, faculty and students posed questions regarding lack of opportunity for people of color, dog whistle politics specifically in regard to trade, and the empirical side of López’s work. López emphasized the importance of storytelling when it comes to elections, politics, and rhetoric.

“It’s very important for progressives to recognize that people vote in terms of stories, and don’t respond as well to policy arguments,” he said. “We’re never going to get past that soundbite level of politics.”

He cited the example of opposition by Republicans to things like universal healthcare and how they appeal to their base, emphasizing how they build their communications around questions like ‘how am I seen in society?’, ‘who threatens me?’, and ‘who are my allies?’ In this specific instance, he said the story is “the government is coming to take your healthcare.”

“We can connect by expressing that we face a class enemy,” he said. “My end goal is always human connection and social solidarity. We can have racial justice but only if we have a multiracial movement. Our strategy must be to unite and build, not divide and conquer.”

López teaches race and constitutional law at Berkeley Law and is a graduate of Washington University, Princeton University, and Harvard University. He has published several books, including Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America (2019) and Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014). López is one of the nation’s leading thought leaders on the evolution of racism since the civil rights era. Currently, his research focuses on the connection between racial divisions and growing wealth inequality in America.

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