Conservatives and liberals shared a rare moment of interideological unity last week in condemning the racist ranting of John Derbyshire, which ultimately ended his residency at the National Review.
The irony is that Derbyshire's racism, while deplorable, is not nearly as corrosive to race relations as the daily dog whistles from the conservative movement. The result of 40 years of these coded attacks is to ensure a permanent de facto racial segregation in our political dialogue, pitting white male voters against African Americans, poisoning our discourse, and incapacitating our elected leaders' ability to deal with real issues of discrimination.
Derbyshire's sin in conservative circles was not expressing or holding racist views; instead, it was violating the dictates of the conservative movement's racial strategy outlined by famed GOP operative Lee Atwater in 1981:
You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N****r, n****r, n****r... By 1968, you can't say 'n****r' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
Roger Ailes followed this directive in 1968, most famously when he attempted to find "a good, mean, Wallaceite cab driver" while prepping a "Man in the Arena" appearance for then candidate Richard Nixon. "Wouldn't that be great," the current Fox News chief mused. "Some guy to sit there and say, 'Alwright mac, what about these n****rs?'"
Ailes brought these same tactics to George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign when he told a reporter in the summer of 1988 that "the only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it." He then went on to produce the widely derided Revolving Door ad, which built on the fears Willie Horton inspired.
Current CNN contributor Alex Castellanos continued the dog whistle tradition producing an ad titled "Hands" during the closing week of Jesse Helms' 1990 Senate campaign against African-American candidate Harvey Gantt. The commercial depicted a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection letter. Castellanos has since acknowledged the divisive nature of the ad, agreeing that running the same during the 2008 presidential election would have harmed race relations.
Conservative media have picked up where politicians left off. Rush Limbaugh made little effort to hide the racial overtones in his 2007 parody that was based on a Los Angeles Times column headlined "Barack the Magic Negro."
Bill O'Reilly explicitly linked Rev. Jeremiah Wright to Willie Horton, exclaiming after airing a tape of a controversial sermon by the pastor, "This is Willie Horton ... times a thousand." He then asked Fox News contributor Dick Morris, "If you were McCain, do you use this against Obama?"
In response Morris averred, "He doesn't have to. You just did."
The election of our first black president only exacerbated race-baiting by conservatives. The right-wing media's obsession with the New Black Panthers story is the most acute symptom of this plague. On Election Day, Fox News was already focused on the presence of members of the organization at a single polling station in Philadelphia.
The New Black Panthers, a hate group akin to neo-Nazis, skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, and other racist fringe groups, should be granted no platform in the media. However prior to 2008, it was Fox News -- and most frequently, Sean Hannity -- that hosted leaders of the group, during dozens of appearances, precisely to terrify its mostly white audience by broadcasting these scary black men into their homes.
It's also why the network, after serving as the premier promotional vehicle for the New Black Panthers, turned on the group to forward the conspiracy theory that the Obama Justice Department had declined to prosecute the group for voter intimidation. Never mind that not a single voter has come forward to claim that he was dissuaded from voting by the group, and that the Bush Justice Department also declined to prosecute the group along with others who intimidated Hispanic voters at the polls in the Southwest.
And while Fox News ran the New Black Panthers story ad nauseam in the summer of 2010, it barely granted the story of Trayvon Martin's killing any coverage as a national controversy until the opportunity arose to race bait.
Code words are not only injected into stories with obvious racial overtones. When Barack Obama expressed his opinion on how the Supreme Court should judge his health care law, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Karl Rove all suggested the president is a thug, signaling to the Republican base that he was no different from the depictions of Trayvon Martin circulating on the right -- a hostile black man out to assault white people.
Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Rove, and Ailes all expertly adhere to the Atwater doctrine. Racially divisive strategies are not only acceptable but the norm in the conservative movement, so long as the communicators maintain their coded dialect.
Conservative dog whistles are now as loud as air-raid sirens, creating a toxic environment that divides us by prejudice that should have been eliminated from our national consciousness decades ago. Until political racism is as unacceptable as de jure racism, our electoral climate will remain poisoned.
Buy Ari Rabin-Havt's book The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine.