Annette John-Hall: Race and the campaign: Hear that dog whistle?

Posted: October 06, 2012

You have to wonder whether the rabid supporters of voter ID will care all that much after this election, now that Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. has finally done the right thing and ruled that Pennsylvania voters won't need IDs to cast ballots in next month's election.

After all, we know what it was intended for.

While many voters supported the law not realizing how hard the state would make it for citizens to exercise their right, that sentiment pales in comparison with what some folks really thought.

Let's be real.

They were trying to make sure the record turnout by African Americans for the first African American president never happened again.

They wanted their country back.

Make no mistake, racial attitudes and beliefs fueled opinion behind the voter ID law.

That's what David C. Wilson, a University of Delaware political science professor, discovered when he conducted a National Agenda Opinion Poll about the voter ID law.

Wilson found that the more racial resentment people had, the more they supported voter ID laws. It's no shock that those folks overwhelmingly described themselves as Republican and conservative.

Which is why it's no surprise that the political season has been loaded with words like redistribution, entitlements, food stamps, poor, and lazy. Nothing more than political dog whistles used to convey one thing while triggering racial images for the folks already cued in to see them.

Mitt Romney has made liberal use of the dog whistle. Rick Santorum, he of the "blah people" remark, is a master whistler.

And don't forget Daryl Metcalfe.

You know, the state rep from Butler, the author of the voter ID law, and the one who whined about Simpson's Tuesday decision, calling it "skewed in favor of the lazy, who refuse to exercise the necessary work ethic" to get an ID.

Never mind that Metcalfe denigrated thousands of seniors, disabled voters, and veterans of all races who struggled to meet an ID requirement that changed from day to day.

By whistling "lazy," Metcalfe tapped into an age-old stereotype "that people know is racial," Wilson says. "Laziness is not explicitly racial, but in the context of voter ID, what else are you going to think about?"

It's all part of a broader racial narrative. Ever since Barack Obama became president, he's had to walk a racial tightrope. If he teeters, he's an angry black man or, worse, racially divisive.

In this supposed postracial society, the animus even trickles down to Michelle Obama, who was racially slimed by a Virginia voter who was recently interviewed on NPR.

Of the president, voter Bobbie Lussier said: "I just - I don't like him, can't stand to look at him. I don't like his wife. She's far from the first lady. It's about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady."

Curiously, Lussier said her main problem with the first lady had nothing to do with race. "I don't care what color she is," she said, repeating her view that "she doesn't act and look like a first lady. I mean, she's more about looking - showing her arms off."

Hmm, I see. A lot like Jackie Kennedy did.

Conservatives seem to have an endless supply of dog whistles. Just this week, they "unearthed" a 2007 video of then-candidate Obama delivering what they decry as a "racially charged, angry speech" made to a group of African American ministers at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. An event the national media covered back then.

In it, the president argues that the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans deserved the same kind of speedy government response as the Florida victims of Hurricane Andrew. He also talked about the "quiet riot of discontent and despair" among African Americans "without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny."

I guess I'm not on the whistle-stop, but I thought it was a good speech.

The intent of this racial drinking game is that the president better not talk about poor black people. The sad result is that poverty has barely been uttered in this campaign from either side.

"When people think about empathy, they don't think about it in general terms," Wilson says. "They think about who deserves it, and to them, poor people don't deserve it." Especially poor black people, who surely caused their own condition.

And if you're listening to Mitt Romney, they wouldn't have it any other way.

Remember, his job is not to worry about those people.


Contact Annette John-Hall

at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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