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Today's Dominant Racial Dog Whistle? Obamacare

Ian Haney López
Huffington Post

"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.