This post first appeared in Salon. Ian Haney López recently appeared on Moyers & Company to talk with Bill about his new book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.
While attention focuses on Paul Ryan’s remarks about inner city culture, another dog-whistle theme continues its slow roil: food stamp abuse. More even than Ryan’s twisting narrative, the brouhaha around food stamps helps make clear that conservatives seek to conjure a much bigger bogeyman than “lazy” minorities.
Ostensibly worried that too many people prefer welfare to work, House Republicans this January stripped $8.6 billion from the food stamp program. This threatened to reduce monthly food assistance by an average of $90 per family — from households that are barely hanging on, with average gross monthly incomes of just $744. Yet far from conceding defeat, states are joining battle by adjusting their programs in ways that evade the cuts, bringing the food stamp debate back.
Just last week, House Speaker John Boehner warned that “states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps,” and he implored his colleagues “to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.” Cheating and fraud constitute stock themes in the conservative assault on food stamps — tropes applied indiscriminately to both recipients and government. And therein lies a clue to the real target.
To see the actual agenda clearly, though, it helps to reach back to Ronald Reagan, for he perfected today’s conservative assault on food stamps.
Reagan frequently stumped by sympathizing with the anger of voters waiting in line to buy hamburger, while some young fellow ahead of them used food stamps to buy a T-bone steak. With this tale, Reagan invoked the stereotype of the welfare recipient who abuses government benefits to live in luxury (Reagan’s other version: welfare queens).
The comedian Jon Stewart recently compiled a montage of contemporary conservative talking heads spinning just these sorts of yarns about food stamps. It would have been funnier if people weren’t actually being pushed into hunger.
Going to the racial dimensions of these hackneyed fictions, when Reagan initially told the T-bone steak story, he identified the food stamp abuser as a young “buck,” a term then commonly used among Southern whites to refer to a strong black man. This veered dangerously toward open racism, and in any event proved unnecessary. Even after Reagan dropped that term from future renditions, the racial element continued just below the surface, with welfare recipients implicitly colored black.
But this was not a simple plot to demonize minorities. Rather, Reagan had another scapegoat in mind, and here we come to the heart of dog-whistle politics. Ostensibly, even more than grasping minorities, the greatest enemy of the middle class was liberal government. After all, it was government that was reaching into taxpayer’s pockets and wasting their hard-earned dollars.
By “darkening” government itself, Reagan provided the kindling for a taxpayer revolt that ostensibly would cut off funds to the lazy and irresponsible — but that in fact generated enormous windfalls for the very rich. In the 1980s, by one estimate, the top 1 percent of Americans reaped tax cuts worth a trillion dollars, and they’ve received a further trillion dollars from the Reagan tax cuts in each ensuing decade.
Tax cuts for the very rich were just the beginning. By trashing safety-net programs as massive giveaways to undeserving minorities and thereby engendering a general hostility toward government, the right has systematically attacked New Deal programs across multiple domains — from education and housing to marketplace and workplace regulation — undoing in area after area the policies that once promoted an equitable distribution of wealth.
Perhaps to understand the full devastation wrought by modern racial politics, we should bring forward another figure from the shadowed background of the T-bone steak story: the cashier. In the 1970s, she was more likely to be unionized and relatively well-paid, with good benefits. Today, whether white or black or some other race, she is likely working without union protection for a minimum wage whose value has sharply fallen and that cannot sustain a small family above poverty. Indeed, like many Wal-Mart employees, it’s the cashier who today is on food stamps.
When House Republicans war against food assistance, just as when Ryan tilts at government poverty programs that don’t work because of a tailspin of culture in our inner cities, their real target is progressive government. Yes, race-baiting superficially aims at minorities and hits nonwhite communities hard, including the 24 percent of food stamp recipients who are black. But just as cuts to food aid also afflict the 38 percent of program participants who are white, dog-whistle politics savages Americans of every race.
And it devastates every class, too, for this sort of racial politics doesn’t just slam the poor, it imperils all who are better off when government protects the broad middle rather than serves society’s sultans. When conservatives blow that dog whistle, government is the target, and you’re a likely victim.