Code Words, Dog Whistles, and Other Lies

In Googling around for a previous post about the batshit hostility directed at Paul Ryan's welfare remarks, I came across this Politico story from one Ian Haney López. Its theme: Ryan was in a long tradition of GOP politicians making "racial attacks". Quoting uncritically Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-Calif.) rant against Ryan, López expanded her argument:

By calling out his use of “code words,” Lee put Ryan in the company of past politicians who have blown the proverbial dog whistle—using surreptitious references to race to garner support from anxious voters. Examples of dog whistling include Barry Goldwater’s endorsement of “states’ rights”; Richard Nixon’s opposition to “forced busing”; Ronald Reagan’s blasts against “welfare queens”; and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.

All these examples are well-known, because they are endlessly flogged by people who have given up argument, and resort to, essentially, "I'm right because you're a racist."

López is identified as (oh oh) a "law professor at UC Berkeley" and the author of a recent book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. So he's prettily heavily invested in the whole "code words"/"dog whistle" thesis.

Let's concentrate on López's allegation about Reagan. It's certainly widespread (in various forms) as you can see by Googling. The blurb at Amazon for López's book doubles down:

Campaigning for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan told stories of Cadillac-driving "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. In trumpeting these tales of welfare run amok, Reagan never needed to mention race, because he was blowing a dog whistle: sending a message about racial minorities inaudible on one level, but clearly heard on another. In doing so, he tapped into a long political tradition that started with George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and is more relevant than ever in the age of the Tea Party and the first black president.

And Amazon has allowed "search inside the book", so we can tell that López is pretty darn certain about what Reagan said:

Reagan also trumpeted his racial appeals in blasts against welfare cheats. On the stump, Reagan repeatedly invoked a story of a “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”14 Often, Reagan placed his mythical welfare queen behind the wheel of a Cadillac, tooling around in flashy splendor.

In sum: Reagan made up an anecdote about welfare fraud that encouraged bigots to vote for him, or something, but kept his hands clean by not explicitly mentioning race.

Looking a little more closely, López's neat little anti-Reagan yarn begins to unravel. His footnote goes to a 1976 New York Times story (which is well behind a paywall, but the original story was from the Washington Star, and you can read the same thing here.) In addition, the footnote cites the book Cheating Welfare: Public Assisstance and the Criminalization of Poverty by Kaaryn S. Gustafson (pp. 34-37).

Both references are Reagan-hostile, but both point to the likely source of Reagan's anecdote, a woman with many names, but most often referred to as "Linda Taylor". There's a recent meticulously-researched article about "Linda Taylor" by Josh Levin in Slate. Recommended; Levin is also critical of Reagan, but grants the essential accuracy of his anecdote. Levin describes how Taylor's story is much more sordid than Reagan realized.

What can we learn from all these sources?

  • Despite López accusing Reagan of doing this nasty deed in 1980, the actual occurrences (such as they are) seem to have been from his earlier 1976 campaign. Sloppy.

  • Despite López labelling the subject of Reagan's anecdote as "mythical", Linda Taylor was a real person. There's no reason for López not to have known this.

  • Despite López putting the alleged dog-whistle code words "welfare queen" in quotes, nobody can, um, actually cite Reagan using that phrase "on the stump". He did, Levin notes, use the phrase once in one of his radio addresses in the fall of 1976, and he made it clear that it was a term others were using about her. (The “welfare queen, as she’s now called.”)

    That's quite a dog whistle: not only do you need special ears to imagine racism in the words that don't mention race, you actually have to imagine that Reagan used the words in the first place.

  • So Reagan didn't coin the phrase "welfare queen" for Taylor; it was (however) very common in the media of the day. For example, Google has preserved for us this 1974 article headlined "Alleged 'Welfare Queen' Is Accused of $154,000 Ripoff".

    Is that article using a racist "dog whistle"? Well, it's from Jet magazine. So I doubt you could make that charge credibly. (And, yes, that is Redd Foxx on the cover as the police chief of Taft, Oklahoma. Which is a whole 'nother story.)

  • And, yes: Linda Taylor did indeed own a Cadillac. Reagan did not place her "behind the wheel": she did that herself.

  • There's some doubt whether Taylor was even black. She claimed to be, when it suited her purposes. But her birth records, in the race-obsessed South, show her as white. Whatever her genome, she was not a good target for a "dog whistle" racial attack.

Bottom line: López's swipe at Reagan is sloppy and mendacious. I have little doubt those qualities extend to the whole of his argument about dog whistle code words.

[Note: I haven't discussed Reagan's use of the term "strapping young buck" here, but this post from David Bernstein make it seem even more farfetched than "welfare queen". The phrase was occasionally used, apparently without racial overtones, by others at the time. And Reagan apparently used the phrase once; if he considered the phrase to be an effective dog whistle, don't you think he'd use it more than once?]

Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:20 AM EDT