Part 2: Dog whistles at large – racism

SWU Blog Series | Part 2: Dog whistles at large - racism

Social Workers must be vigilant to dog whistles.

Narinder Sidhu is a Professional Officer for BASW Cymru and a registered Social Worker who has worked in a range of clinical settings as a Forensic Social Worker and Mental Health Practitioner within the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). She is also a specialist lecturer and co-chairs the BASW UK & SWU LGBTQIA+ Action Group. Her areas of expertise include forensic social work, LGBTQIA+, intersectionality, domestic abuse, forced marriage, honour-based violence, and female genital mutilation.

Thankfully, nowadays it is not considered acceptable for individuals to make hateful statements – for example, statements that are racist, sexist, or xenophobic. This means that politicians or people who want to make such statements need to use coded language, and that’s when “dog whistles” are used.

I believe that dog whistles have huge implications for democratic politics and with social work being a politicised profession it is important that we are aware and fully understand the more covert speech acts around us.

Racial dog whistles

Racial dog whistles are often used when people want to speak about race specifically to their target audience but cannot deliver their intended antagonistic message directly. The coded messages in these dog whistles are used to reinforce racist ideology and to inflame racial prejudice.

Ian Haney-López who is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley explains that dog whistling “simply means speaking in code to a target audience.”

According to Haney-López, people using racial dog whistles utilise these three key tactics:

  1. The individual forces race into the discussion through “thinly veiled” racist remarks against people of colour.
  2. The individual will make sure to not directly reference any one racial or ethnic group so they cannot be accused of direct racism.
  3. The individual will shame any critics who try to call them out on the racist comments.

Dog whistles during pandemics

Dehumanising rhetoric around disease is not a new phenomenon. I reflected that the UK has an ugly dog whistle history around healthcare and crises.

Let’s think about the 1980s AIDS Crisis. During the height of the AIDS pandemic, people in power used homophobic slurs to ignore the increasing death tolls in the LGBTQ+ community. It was widely called the “gay plague” and mistakenly believed that HIV could be transmitted by any kind of proximity. All sectors of society stigmatised the gay community during this time and many AIDS patients died in isolation. It was not until I reached adulthood that I was able to process these significant events of my childhood through a lens of societal and systematic discrimination.

Think about what you have heard about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The widespread apportioning of blame for the disease on China caused racial abuse of people of East and South East Asian (ESEA) heritage to dramatically increase in the UK and western world during the pandemic. A 2020 Ipsos Mori poll found that 1 in 7 people in the UK intentionally avoid people of Chinese origin or appearance.

UK police data suggests a 300% rise in hate crimes towards people of ESEA heritage in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2018 and 2019. According to the UK-based advocacy group End Violence and Racism Against ESEA Communities (EVR), this trend continues to this day.

Misinformation is its own form of virus, spreading fear and hate. Stigma spread by misinformation can result in an increase of hate crimes and an increase of preventable morbidity rates for marginalised communities.

The dog whistles of Brexit

Politicians use dog whistles in an attempt to manipulate people into making decisions they wouldn’t normally be morally comfortable with. A contemporary example of a xenophobic and racist dog whistle is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) anti-migrant poster which was unveiled by its leader Nigel Farage in 2016, as seen below:

This poster is not about immigration; it is about race. Notably, the white box on the bottom right of the image covers the one white face in the crowd, which many have speculated was a deliberate design choice. This poster uses coded messages used to reinforce racist ideas that the UK’s societal and economic problems are caused by an influx of undeserving, lazy, and violent people of colour.

This xenophobic messaging suggests that non-whiteness and immigration (including refugees) are the main cause for the UK to be at “breaking point” – however, it avoids being specific about what exactly is breaking. The vagueness suggests that non-whiteness is to blame for any crises including the socioeconomic, health, security, educational, employment, housing, criminal justice, welfare (I could go on) crisis the UK is facing. It sends a strong message that the simple removal of such people will make Britain great again with the implication that a white Britain would be better off. 

In an even more recent example from 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “I’ll make Britain great again!” Johnson promised in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister that Brexit would make Britain the greatest place on earth. This echoed Donald Trump’s  campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” which is a well-known racial dog whistle used to gain favour with white voters. Johnson was determined to deliver on Brexit and so many backed him and voted for Brexit, despite the thinly veiled attempts of the Brexit campaign to inflame and embolden prejudice.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022

Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people face not only high levels of prejudice and discrimination, but an increasingly hostile legal environment.

In 2021 the British Association of Social Workers, Social Workers Union, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association and several partner organisations co-signed a letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, opposing inhumane and unlawful draft guidance published in support of the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It is unjust for a person or group of people to be targeted because they are judged (on unclear criteria) to be likely to commit a criminal offence and this attempt at predicting criminality sets a worrying precedent.

The Conservative party’s bill became the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and effectively criminalises the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller traditional way of life by introducing fines and prison sentences for unauthorised encampments, along with the confiscation of people’s vehicles and homes.

I agree with Jo Richardson, Professor of Housing and Social Inclusion when she refers to the Gypsies and Travellers “clampdown” as being less dog whistle and more political fog-horn. Notably, dog whistles have been used in UK politics by other parties too and not just the Conservatives.

When you know, you know – and now you know

Some of these examples overtly demonstrate Haney-López’s thinking when he defines the dog-whistle as a “strategic manipulation of racial ideas for the pursuit of power and material wealth.” Dog whistles trade in racist ideas but they explicitly avoiding naming race directly; they invoke negative racial stereotypes with the hope that the audience will not make a conscious connection of the underlying inflammatory rhetoric.

The power of dog whistles stems from the plausible deniability that they contain coded messages. Identifying and calling dog whistles out means they lose their power. Therefore, it’s important to call out the coded messages when you see them. 

Questioning “Is there something racist going on here?” is enough to inform you that it is likely a dog whistle.

Social Workers challenge social injustice and promote human rights so must be able to clearly understand the various ways in which racism and xenophobia can manifest. We must also be vigilant about how people in power can leverage their influence to create and promote the adoption of legislation and social policy which have no regard for human rights, equality, and inclusion.

If we consider the so called “border crisis” in the UK, what are the political lies you are told and what racial dog whistles have you missed?

Continue reading this blog series to learn about what dog whistles are and about different types of dog whistle discrimination from people who have experienced it first-hand: