Stop calling racist rhetoric a ‘dog whistle’

Acme Whistles, a company in Birmingham, England, that has been in business since 1870, is known for making top-quality dog whistles. The company sells more than fifteen varieties, which emit sounds akin to a construction worker’s catcall or a football referee signaling offside. But Acme’s site features just one model of silent dog whistle, and even that one can be adjusted so humans can hear it.

“There is no such thing as a truly silent dog whistle,” says Ben McFarlane, Acme’s head of sales and marketing. “And there’s no way that we, as a serious whistle-maker, would make a product that you couldn’t hear.”

Journalists covering politics in the Trump era, take note. Those statements you keep calling “dog whistles” are clearly audible.

In late July, President Trump announced he would dismantle an Obama-era fair-housing rule and tweeted, “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood…. Crime will go down.” At a Midland, Texas, rally the same day, he said that low-income housing has been “hell for suburbia…. So enjoy your life, ladies and gentlemen.”

The Daily Beast published its roundup under the headline “Desperate Dog Whistle.” A New York Daily News columnist called Trump’s blast his “latest white supremacist dog-whistle.” It was enough to prompt Merriam-Webster to list dog whistle among its “words of the week.”

Dog whistles are messages “that seem innocent to a general audience but resonate with a specific public attuned to receive them,” as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, wrote in his Political Dictionary. In today’s journalism, it means that a politician—often Trump, but not always—is using language that some supporters will appreciate, but that is subtle enough that he feels he can be credibly exonerated of racism. 

“Things are metastasizing into monstrous versions of what they used to look like. We see the resemblance to past dog whistling, but we’ve also never seen anything this vitriolic before.”

It can be an effective strategy, according to Ian Haney López, a University of California law professor. “Politicians routinely do this, seeking to surreptitiously communicate support to small groups of impassioned voters whose commitments are not broadly embraced by the body politic,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Dog Whistle Politics.

That was true in the 1980s, when George H.W. Bush ran campaign ads featuring grainy photos of rapist Willie Horton, or in the 1990s, when Hillary Clinton warned of a crime wave spurred by “super-predators” with “no conscience, no empathy.” But from the first day of Trump’s campaign, when he broadly characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists, it’s clear that dog whistles aren’t the understated, wink-wink phrases of a past era. They’ve never been louder.

Trump isn’t alone. Two years ago, Richard Corcoran, who was then the GOP Speaker of the Florida State House, spent $95,000 running an incendiary ad on Fox News featuring the reenactment of the murder of a young, unaccompanied white woman gunned down in her suburban neighborhood by a hooded man of color. It was a bizarre commercial, with its overt reference to the Kate Steinle killing, which happened in San Francisco, not Tampa or Orlando. A Florida political columnist called it “a dog whistle to those inclined to be suspicious at best of anyone who doesn’t look like them.” In a debate, then–Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum told Corcoran it was an example of “bottom-of-the-barrel, dog-whistle, bullhorn politics.” 

But, similar to many of Trump’s messages, Corcoran’s ad had no subtlety. There was no coded meaning. The message was straightforward: unless immigrants are held in check, young white women are going to be gunned down in their own neighborhoods.

Last year, Haney López published another book, Merge Left, in which he notes that “dog whistling has mutated.… In the age of Trump, things are metastasizing into monstrous versions of what they used to look like. We see the resemblance to past dog whistling, but we’ve also never seen anything this vitriolic before.”

Yet journalists hold fast to outdated, coded language. Trump tweeted last summer that Democratic congresswomen of color who oppose his policies come “from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” and they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” New York magazine said Trump was “blowing a bigger-than-usual dog whistle for his base.” 

When Trump excoriated Elijah Cummings, a Black Democratic congressman, calling his Baltimore district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess…[a] very dangerous & filthy place,” a columnist for The Root wrote that “once again…the president loves a good dog whistle.”

Dog whistles aren’t designed to be silent to humans. They’re engineered to help train dogs to behave, to run in a new direction or to return to their owners. Says McFarlane of Acme Whistles: “It’s one of those things that, unless you’re in that world, you’re not going to understand it.”

In an odd way, the term “dog whistle” has become a dog whistle—but for journalists, not politicians. It’s a convenient phrase reporters can use to signal to their audience that a politician’s message is intended to be subtle. But Trump and other politicians are using strident, uncoded language to get their voters to support racist policies that more genteel leaders would never openly endorse. Any sentient human being can hear that message.

NEW: The story of the 2020 campaign revolves around Trump’s opposition to the American people

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).