“Dog whistle politics” have replaced pejorative terms, but hate remains | Opinion

Hate speech has long been present in the history of the U.S. In this country’s past, what we now call hate speech achieved a measure of tolerance, and too often, wide acceptance by much of the public. And hate crimes usually paralleled the rise of hate speech and its surrogate terms.

While pejorative terms such as “chink,” “wop,” or “wetback” have receded in public usage, bias persists in coded ways that appeal to those who hold racist, white nationalist, xenophobic beliefs, or all three – what social scientists refer to as “dog whistle politics.” George Wallace, who famously opposed desegregation, utilized the term “states’ rights” that held an appeal to those who believed in the separation of the races, in miscegenation laws, in the suppression of voting rights for racial minorities, in the inherent inferiority of non-whites, and in immigration laws that restricted the entry of “undesirable people.”

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The concept of “states’ rights” can simply refer to the debate over the Constitutional limits of federal governmental authority over the states. Yet, when it is used in a particular context, such as Wallace’s defiance of federal authority to enforce the Brown decision of 1954, many if not most of his supporters were not concerned about an interpretation of the Constitution.

California State Library
California State Library

Rather, they wanted to maintain a racialized social order. Similarly, in 1948, then Governor of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond (D) opposed the civil rights provisions of the platform at the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination convention. He subsequently ran as a third-party “Dixiecrat” candidate, in which he carried four southern states, riding the notion of states’ rights.

In a 1980 campaign speech, Ronald Reagan also used “states’ rights” in a town a few miles from where three civil rights workers had been killed – just a coincidence, right? President Obama faced incredibly racist hate speech, imagery, graffiti, and claims that he was not born in the U.S. His successor to the White House even stoked the “birther” accusation, for which he never apologized.

Hate crimes rose between 2016 and 2019 to new levels, about 75% of them based on race/ethnicity (57%). In Fresno County, for example, hate crimes peaked in 2018 (22); covid dampened such incidents to 10 in 2019, though the number went up again in 2022 to 16. In the Fresno region as a whole, 2022 witnessed a four-year high in hate crimes. (Keep in mind that incidents of hate speech and crimes often go unreported.)

The non-partisan Brookings Institution (Aug. 14, 2019) published a review of several studies on the relationship between Joe Biden’ predecessor and expressions of prejudice. In that review of the scholarly literature, the Brookings report used a well-publicized comment by the former president regarding Mexicans immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. In that study, people who were exposed to the former president’s views led to an increase in their use of derogatory remarks toward Mexicans. And the report also noted the research that found a correlation between campaign events by the defeated former president and incidents of prejudicial violence.

Politicians have become adept in using dog whistle appeals: “illegals,” “illegal aliens,” and “anchor babies.” From 2016 to 2020, this country saw a rise in hate speech, particularly toward Mexicans, stirred by the former president. Indeed, the rhetoric about the “invasion” by Mexicans nourished a byproduct: the replacement theory promoted by white supremacists.

A conspiracy based on the idea that Mexicans are intent on “replacing whites” and taking over the U.S. via undocumented immigrants overwhelming any effort to stop their entry. Still, for many if not most Mexicans, what is most alarming is that so many Americans willingly support and/or promote the hate speech stoked by the ex-president.

As the Brookings report concluded, when the data shows that his election “emboldened Americans to engage in racist behavior, it is the responsibility of social scientists and other political observers to say so.”