When Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., talked about a "real culture problem" in "our inner cities in particular" last week, he wasn't the first American politician to be slammed for using racially coded language to get a point across. Far from it.
Ian Haney López, author of "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class," says it's not just the promotion of old-fashioned racial stereotypes that we need to worry about. Rather, he argues, it's the manipulation of racism in service of very specific goals.
López's book, released in January, focuses on elected officials' ability to tap into bias without being explicit about it, all to gain support for what he calls "regressive policies," which hurt working-class white people as much as people of color.
"This sort of coded speech operates on two levels," he says. "It triggers racial anxiety and it allows plausible deniability by crafting language that lets the speaker deny that he's even thinking about race."
It's disturbing and frustrating, and more than ever, it's what racism sounds like and how politics works.
To understand how outright racist language has gone underground but is working as hard as ever to drum up support for conservative policies, the author says, you just have to look at this list of sneaky code words and phrases that politicians throughout history have loved, and what they really mean:
1. 'Inner City'
Ryan's statement, which he later said he regretted, is a perfect example of the way public expressions of racism have evolved, says López. "You can't publicly say black people don't like to work, but you can say there's an inner-city culture in which generations of people don't value work." The goal here, he says, isn't to demonize minorities — far from it — but to demonize a government that helps the middle class (and if the people Americans have historically associated with inner cities have to be used in the process, so be it).