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Today's Dominant Racial Dog Whistle? Obamacare

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"Obamacare." The right loves to hammer the Affordable Care Act with this tagline, and even the rest of us tend to us it. But we should not, for the label works at least partly as a racial provocation.


In January, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus told reporters "We've promised that in 2014 we'd continue to pound away at Democrats and Obamacare and that's how we're starting the year." Would the GOP attempt to link every issue back to health care reform, a reporter asked. Adopting a jocular tone, Priebus rejoined "The answer is Obamacare."

This mot should be understood on two levels. The first, confirmed when Priebus went on to say that health care "is going to be the No. 1 issue in 2014," is a claim about substance: the GOP promises to conduct this year's mid-term elections as yet another referendum on the Affordable Care Act.

The other level is rhetorical: at every possible turn, the GOP and its allies will use the label "Obamacare." They do so seeking to capitalize on how the term functions as a racial dog whistle.

From the outset, Obama has been attacked through coded terms that stir racial anxiety without directly mentioning race. Witness the hackneyed charges that Obama's lazy, a Muslim, and foreign born. While not specifically referencing race, these nevertheless evoke racial stereotypes. They are dog whistles: silent about race on one level, but stirring racial anxiety on another.

Undoubtedly, as the first black president Obama is an easy target for surreptitious racial attacks. Yet dog whistling is not new with Obama. Instead, sometimes called the Southern Strategy, race baiting has been prevalent in conservative politics for almost 50 years. The typical dog whistle slanders liberal programs by framing them as sops to undeserving minorities. Richard Nixon campaigned against "forced busing," tarnishing integration by conjuring the specter of nonwhite kids invading suburban schools; Ronald Reagan impugned "welfare queens," attacking the social safety net by spreading images of blacks as freeloaders; and the elder George Bush besmirched progressive policies by invoking a black rapist, Willie Horton, out on furlough. As a Bush campaign adviser remarked, Horton offered "a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist."

What about "Obamacare"? Mitt Romney back in 2007 seems to have been the first political figure to use it, while the conservative word strategist Frank Luntz was an early and powerful proponent of that disparaging term. No doubt "Hillarycare" provided the initial model, for its use helped to undermine health care reform during the Clinton presidency by casting Hillary Clinton as a domineering woman intent on creating a nanny state. Where "Hillarycare" subtly hijacked gender, "Obamacare" exploits race. The tagline silently shouts: Here comes an incompetent, untrustworthy black man pushing more giveaways to minorities.

This fits within the long tradition of Southern Strategy dog whistling. And it's consistent with the sophistication of Obama's attackers. In 2012 Newt Gingrich dubbed Obama "the most effective food stamp president in American history"; Mitt Romney bannered the slogan "Obama is not working"; and Romney campaign co-chair John Sununu tarred Obama as "lazy," "incompetent," and "not that bright." When called to account, these figures stridently denied employing racially loaded language. We can nevertheless be sure that their rhetoric had been carefully calibrated to race. "How do I know this is true?" asked another careful wordsmith, the author Walter Moseley. "Because ... good political poets always have their finger on the jugular vein of the nation."

Initially, Democrats resisted the term, perhaps not fully appreciating its dangerous racial resonance but nevertheless seeing it as demeaning to the president and his signature program. As the label gained wide circulation, however, they were ready to try a different strategy.

Where Republicans intended "Obamacare" to come across as "Obama scares," Democrats convinced themselves that they could repurpose it to mean "Obama cares." Seeking re-election, Obama's campaign would issue bumper stickers declaring "I (heart) Obamacare," and in his stump speeches Obama took to boasting "We passed Obamacare -- yes, I like the term -- we passed it because I do care."

But that was before the health care rollout stumbled. Since then, the administration has found a renewed affinity for the legislation's uplifting title, the Affordable Care Act. Government websites that used to tout the benefits of "Obamacare" have been scrubbed of the term, and the president largely avoids that label. Ostensibly, the impetus is simple math: health care reform's positive qualities poll higher than does the president.

Yet in jettisoning "Obamacare," the president may also be responding to the right's increasing success in using race to frighten the public about him and health care reform. This increasing success builds on years of anti-Obama dog whistling. But the botched rollout also contributed powerful ammunition by allowing conservatives to hammer two themes deeply tied to racial stereotypes.

One involves lying. Recall Congressman Joe Wilson's interjection "You lie!" shouted during the 2009 State of the Union address. Many objected to Wilson's breach of decorum; fewer noted that his accusation echoed stereotypes regarding black mendacity. At the time, the aspersion struck most as absurd, and while it never fully dissipated, it had little ill effect. In the wake of Obama's misleading reassurances that everyone could keep their preferred insurance plans, however, the obloquy "Obama lies" has metastasized.

The other charge involves incompetence, one of the most powerful stereotypes denigrating African Americans. Again, this allegation had long bubbled around Obama without gaining much credence. The fumbled rollout changed that, creating a much greater opportunity for conservatives to firmly put on Obama the stink of ineptitude.

It's true that similar allegations would have been leveled against any politician in Obama's position; these charges are not completely unmoored from reality. But in the context of a massive and complicated new government effort, glitches and misstatements are par for the course. It is race rather than reality that gives so much destructive power to the accusation that Obama's a bumbling liar whose programs threaten the nation.

A January Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 89 percent of Republicans disapprove of how Obama is handling the health care rollout, with almost 8 of 10 voicing strong disapproval. These numbers don't just reflect policy concerns. As social psychologists found in 2010 and 2012, opposition to health care reform partly reflects racial prejudice. (Michael Tesler, "The Spillover of Racialization into Health Care: How President Obama Polarized Public Opinion by Racial Attitudes and Race," American Journal of Political Science, vol. 56, July 2012, pp. 690-704; Eric D. Knowles, Brian Lowery, and Rebecca L. Schaumberg, "Racial Prejudice Predicts Opposition to Obama and His Health Care Reform Plan," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 46, 2010, pp. 420-23.) And so conservatives furiously pound "Obamacare" into the national conversation, doing everything they can to ensure that Obama scares.


Perhaps some Republican spokespersons fail to recognize the power race gives to their rhetoric. Nevertheless, we can be certain that many leading GOP strategists have carefully calculated the advantages they accrue by stirring racial fear.

Recently, Melissa Harris-Perry correctly called out "Obamacare" as a racial goad, but erred by implicitly equating it with "nigger." Racial language has evolved since the civil rights era, especially in the political arena. To operate in public, racism must now be shrouded in ambiguity. "Nigger" particularly won't do, because no other term is more widely recognized as a reviled racial epithet.

But "Obamacare" works, for it functions on two levels, one racially laden but the other allowing protestations of innocence, including claims that it merely echoes other nonracial jibes like Hillarycare and even Romneycare. There's nothing racial about it -- or so one might plausibly insist, as conservative pundits did loudly in ridiculing Harris-Perry's critique.

Yet in a political milieu fraught with strategic racial innuendo, "Obamacare" is racially potent. It picks up the other slanders piled around the president and it piles these onto the Southern Strategy slam that liberalism panders to undeserving minorities. In a country with 48 million uninsured persons and among the highest health care costs in the world, we all lose when coded racial appeals poison our politics.