The Anatomy of a Dog Whistle

The Anatomy of a Dog Whistle

Acting outside of our awareness, using frequencies we may not consciously hear, dog whistles evade our better angels on race.


The governor’s race in Virginia provided a preview of coming attractions for the GOP’s 2022 strategy on race. That preview looks much like Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, with its primary theme of racial division.

This year’s winner for Best Picture was the horror flick Critical Race Theory: Revenge of the Woke (CRT, for short). In it, zombies dressed as teachers separated preschoolers into oppressors and oppressed. Others educated kindergartners about a theory taught in some law schools, which describes how discrimination was built into our legal system years ago in ways we often do not notice.

Although Virginia does have some of the best public schools in the country, its curriculum is not quite that accelerated. CRT has not yet found its way into K-12 classrooms there or anywhere else.

The right, however, spent a fortune carefully and deliberately branding any discussion of race, from slavery to George Floyd, as CRT, and branding CRT, in turn, as a theory that teaches that white people, and the United States, are inherently evil and racist. That turns any discussion of race into an attack on all white people and America. The right-wing echo chamber has used this false branding to send angry parents to school board meetings all over the country, demanding that their children not be exposed to something to which they are not being exposed.

Could the CRT myth the right is peddling possibly be true? No. It would require a genuine zombie edu-pocalypse. Teachers are a cross section of society who share the same diverse range of party affiliations and attitudes on race as the rest of us. Like the rest of the population, few could even define CRT, let alone teach it to schoolchildren.

Are some teachers bringing their biases into the classroom? Sure. We all bring our biases everywhere, despite our efforts to check them at the door where they are inappropriate, and every bell curve has outliers, whose views and actions are off the beaten path of the other 99 percent.

Many commentators are taking literally the pre-election and exit polls showing “education” to be one of the most important issues to Virginia voters. But they are misinterpreting the data, by ignoring a significant problem with polls: You can’t ask people conscious questions about unconscious processes.

Psychologists established decades ago that when you ask people why they prefer one candidate, car, or candy bar, they will give you an answer, but they are “telling more than they know.” Our brains make complex decisions, such as voting, by integrating a range of conscious and unconscious assessments and associations. By definition, the only inputs to our decisions of which we are aware are the ones that are conscious.

The best we can do when asked about our choice is thus to make an educated guess. Few of us are aware, for example, that whether our polling place is a school or a church activates, or “primes,” different neural networks, so that voters without strong preferences are more likely to vote left in a school and right in a church.

As governor, Terry McAuliffe helped make Virginia’s schools some of the best in the nation. Had education not become a conduit for a racial attack, he could easily have corrected a quote taken out of context from a debate. In the debate, he was describing why, as governor, he had vetoed culture-war bills that would have allowed parents to pick and choose which books they want their kids to read in public schools, which would make teaching impossible.

And were Youngkin really relying on rational choice models of voting, choosing the issue most important to voters to emphasize, he would not have spent the last several weeks of his campaign waging a relentless ad campaign on education, when voters, still reeling from the pandemic and rising prices of gas and groceries, had so many other things to worry about than improving Virginia’s public school ranking from fourth best in the nation to third.

Having just moved to Washington, I had a front-row seat to the campaign in its closing weeks. Youngkin’s ads were consistent, on message, and accomplished what were clearly their two main goals

The first was to establish his likable, old-style Republican normality, and to distance him from Trump, despite their shared ideology. That rendered McAuliffe’s “just like Trump” attack less compelling, particularly in the suburbs. In Virginia, as elsewhere, suburbs have been trending light blue for the last decade, as educated white voters have shifted leftward. The suburbs turned bright blue in 2020 in response to Trump and his virulent, old-style brand of racism. Unlike Trump, Youngkin came across as warm and empathic, which deactivated his association with Trump in the suburbs, even while Trump was touting that association in rural Virginia and bringing out the base.

The second goal of Youngkin’s ads, however, was an unrelenting and successful effort to associate McAuliffe with “CRT.” Like every effective dog whistler, Youngkin relied on frequencies that provide plausible deniability, in this case, education.

The primary message of his ads seemed innocuous enough: “Virginia’s parents have the right to make decisions on their children’s education.” But who really disagreed with that? I’m sure McAuliffe attended parent-teacher conferences when his kids were young and participated actively in their education.

But in the context of the fire the right had set around CRT and the disinformation right-wing media had used to create angry parents at school board meetings, the racial meaning of that message was clear, and it resonated in the suburbs, unconsciously if not consciously. Amplifying that meaning, Loudon County, one of those blue-trending counties that shifted back toward Youngkin, had created a stir a year earlier when it announced that it was instituting training in systemic racism, implicit bias, and “systemic oppression” to address discrimination in its schools. Although teaching people about forms of discrimination “baked into” the system or our minds that are opaque to us (the meanings of systemic and implicit racism) seems like a sensible place to start, I, as an academic, would advise against taking our academic terms out in public, where they are susceptible to misunderstanding and right-wing misdirection, when surely we can find ordinary language to describe what we mean.

In the final days of the campaign, Youngkin refined his message further: “Parents Matter.”

Once again, that seems like an innocuous and incontestable statement. But words activate not only conscious meanings but also unconscious associations in our brains. Those associations provide their connotations and much of their emotional charge. “Parents Matter” activates an unconscious juxtaposition about who matters in this era of racial polarization: parents or black lives? Youngkin could not have said, “White lives matter” in Virginia’s suburbs. So he just whistled it.

What makes dog whistles so effective is that they often act outside of awareness, using frequencies we register but may not consciously hear. They thus succeed in activating unconscious associations, while evading our conscious values, which are our better angels on race.

Some voters, of course, hear the whistle and embrace it. For others, it provides a safe haven for thoughts about which they may be anxious or ambivalent and have only recently begun sharing with their friends. Perhaps one of the major tasks Democrats have ahead of them—in 2022 and for several years to come, as a white majority becomes a white minority—is to figure out how to speak wisely to that anxiety and ambivalence.

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