"Dog Whistle" Racial Politics and the Battle for Immigration Reform


Racism gets votes.   In the 1860’s, the Democratic Party rebounded from its Civil War loss by scapegoating Chinese immigrants.  Although Democrats lost the war to preserve slavery, they channeled American racism into an effective anti-Chinese political strategy.  Democratic politicians painted Chinese immigrants as unassimilable foreigners who worked for depressed wages and stole jobs from white workers.   This strategy was extremely successful, and it led to a Democratic sweep of California elections in 1867.  Running on a racist, anti-Chinese platform, Democrats won the governorship, a large majority in the state assembly, and 2 of 3 federal congressional seats.  In his 1867 victory speech, California governor Henry Haight recounted the sinophobic sentiment that won him the election:

“I will simply say that in this result we protest against corruption and extravagance in our State affairs—against populating this fair State with a race of Asiatics—against sharing with inferior races the Government of the country.”  (Romero, the Chinese in Mexico, 23).

Republicans did something similar in the 1960’s by creating the “Southern Strategy.”  In the wake of African American civil rights gains of the 1960’s, the Republican Party drew disillusioned white, working class Democrats to its ranks by appealing to racism.  Their language was not outright racist, however, because by that time explicitly racist political verbage had become unacceptable.  Instead, Republicans used racially neutral buzzwords to tap into white racial fears and anxieties.   They did not explicitly oppose racial integration in the schools, for example, but instead opposed “busing”; they were not against racial integration per se, but supported “states’ rights” and opposed the long arm of the federal government; they didn’t oppose the noble aims of Rev. Martin Luther King, but did not agree with his strategies of civil disobedience which led to a breakdown of “law and order.”

Richard Nixon is credited with solidifying the Southern Strategy.  In a famous 1981 interview, Republican strategist Lee Atwater disturbingly summarized this veiled racist strategy in the following way:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Modern versions of the Southern Strategy decry affirmative action as “preferential treatment” for unqualified minorities, chastise “welfare queens” for driving Cadillacs and having satellite t.v., uphold “colorblindness” as the new racial norm, and condemn Latino immigrants as “illegal aliens.”   My old law school professor Ian Haney-Lopez calls these coded racial appeals, “Dog Whistle Politics” and “soft porn racism” (http://www.salon.com/2013/12/22/how_the_gop_became_the_white_mans_party/).

From a biblical perspective, “dog whistle politics” appeals to the worst of sinful human nature.  As the prophet Jeremiah tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)?”  Apart from God and the renewal of our hearts by Jesus, the natural tendency of our heart is to feel threatened by those who are different from ourselves, and to hoard socio-economic and political resources for ourselves and those most those like us.

From this humanistic perspective, the resources of society, and even God’s love, are viewed through the lens of a “zero sum game”:  I get the stuff, or you get the stuff, but we can’t all have it.  My kids get into UCLA or your kids get in, but not all of our kids.  God loves the United States or Israel, but not the Palestinians, too.”  This contrasts starkly with a biblical perspective which views Jesus as the God who loves, and died for all people, and who calls us to love even our enemies  (John 3:16; Matthew 5:44). Jesus is the God of unlimited resources who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”—i.e., He is the God of infinite resources and to whom all resources ultimately belong (Psalm 50:10;  Psalm 104:24; 1 Chronicles 29:11; Haggai 2:8).  In fact, as followers of Jesus, we believe that when we give to immigrants, the poor, and the marginalized we are doing the same to Jesus (Matthew 25: 31-46).

Sinful human nature says, “Racism doesn’t exist because I don’t experience it.  Because I’ve had access to good schools, healthcare, and higher education, everyone in America must also have this same opportunity.  If they’re poor it’s because they’re lazy and they’ve chosen not to work hard like I have.  Don’t take my money to help them out.  That’s socialism.  I don’t like “Mexicans” because their culture is backwards, they’re illegal, and they use up all our social services.”

It’s interesting to note that the early church (c. 155 A.D.) viewed materialism and racism as forms of spiritual bondage which could be overcome only through Christ:

"[W]e who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all." Justin 1 Apology 14.

In 2014, the Southern Strategy continues its dark appeal to the worst of human nature.  Today it manifests itself in coded racist appeals to stop the “invasion” of “illegal aliens,” “the war on terror,” and “the war on drugs.” Latinos are at the receiving end of Tea Party immigrant scape-goating;  Arab and South Asian Americans are the veiled racial targets of our “war on terror”; and, Black and Brown urban youth take the wrap for the drug problem in our country (even though rich, white suburban kids use and sell drugs just the same).  The scary thing is that those who run on modern day versions of this Southern Strategy get lots of votes.

This is also why comprehensive immigration reform has been stopped dead in its tracks, and why President Obama broke his most recent promise to take executive action to protect immigrant families.  Republicans, and especially Tea Party Republicans, have successfully played the immigrant race card in key battleground states and the Democrats are scared.   Republicans have implemented a modern day version of the Southern Strategy—you might call it the “Arizona Strategy.”

Instead of doing what’s right to alleviate the suffering of thousands of immigrant families, President Obama and the Democrats have chosen politics as usual.  They caved.  They played along with Republican race-baiting and chose short-term political gain over the suffering of millions of immigrants.

As followers of Jesus, we cannot cave.  We especially cannot let ourselves get sucked into the “Southern Strategies” of our day.  We answer to Jesus, not to any political party. 

I’m so thankful that my hope is not in politicians or the racist whims of the U.S. electorate.  I hope you feel the same.  Our hope is in Jesus, who, “watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but…frustrates the ways of the wicked” Psalm 146: 9.   Jesus doesn’t work on the timetable of any political party.  Political parties and voting electorates must ultimately bow to Jesus’ justice, and I know Jesus will not stop until He brings justice for immigrants:

“He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.”   Matthew 12:20.

Robert Chao Romero