Ready to take a stand against the GOP's racism?
Demand Congressional Democrats do the same by pushing back against legislation and appointees that will hurt America’s most at-risk communities.
This is timeline focuses on the Republican party — which is not intended to say that other parts of society, including the Democratic party, are not in any way free of blame.
Democrats have also been responsible egregious dog whistle politics, particularly under Bill Clinton in the 1990s. This timeline is also not meant to say that the Republican Party’s racism is the worst of their sins. It is instead meant to be illustrative of the politics and strategies the GOP has used for decades that brought us to a point where an outwardly racist, sexist, xenophobe has been elected President — and why he did it via the Republican Party.
Now, back to the timeline...
After the civil rights movement opened up more government programs to people of color that were previously whites-only, the elite ruling class reacted. They saw that they could gain ground by “dog whistling” about welfare and criminals, using racially coded terms to frighten the white working and middle class about a progressive government coddling people of color. Donald Trump took this old dog whistle and turned it into a bullhorn.
This is not to say that the campaign's strategic racism is the only reason tens of millions of people voted to elect Donald Trump. Nor is it an attempt to absolve the Democrats of any blame (they deserve plenty). Rather, the purpose of this page is to show how the racist rhetoric Trump used throughout the campaign is an extension of a deliberate political strategy that has been used for decades.
Now more than ever, our country must reckon with and repair the wounds of our history. If we want to solve the crises of inequality, structural racism, climate change, and political gridlock, we can no longer avoid uncomfortable truths about the racism of our past and present. We can't move forward without acknowledging the history that brought us to this point.
Note: this page is a work in progress, so if you see something that needs correcting or that you think should be added, please let us know. This timeline is deeply indebted to a few sources — most notably Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney López and Michelle Alexander's writing about mass incarceration.
George Wallace is one of the most famous segregationists of the 1960s. During his campaign he vowed to stand in schoolhouse doors to bar Black students from white schools. Six months after his inauguration, he did just that at the University of Alabama. He was not, however, always a rampant racist — he turned that way after losing the 1958 governor race. He later put it this way: “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes, and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about N***ers, and they stomped the floor.”
Though he ran as a Democrat, he was a clear (and often cited) inspiration for the politics used by many Republicans going forward. In some ways, his status as a Democrat is more of a holdover from the pre-civil rights era before the Southern Dixiecrats left the party to become Republicans.
Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for President, ran on a platform that included his strong opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson had signed the legislation into law earlier that year, on the grounds that segregation was a “states’ rights issue.” Goldwater captured the majority of Deep South white voters for the Republican party, marking the beginning of the “Southern Strategy” as a national force.
Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina switched to Red for the first time since Reconstruction. He lost handily, but it signaled a major shift in the Republican party.
Lee Atwater, advisor and campaign manager to Presidents Reagan and Bush, summed up the Southern Strategy this way: “You start out in 1954 by saying, “N***er, n***er, n***er.” By 1968, you can’t say “n***er” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these thing you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
While the name may make it sound like the Southern Strategy was limited to southern states, the reality is that the Southern Strategy has served as the backbone for the Republican party’s national strategy since the 1960s. Its hallmark is playing up racial antagonism — without explicitly talking about race — with the goal of making minorities, rather than concentrated wealth, the enemy of the white middle class.
~Kevin Phillips, political advisor for President Nixon, in the New York Times in 1971.
While Nixon’s main opponent in 1968 was Hubert Humphrey, Nixon was also flanked on the right by third-party George Wallace. Wallace was polling ahead of both Humphrey and Nixon in the South just a month before the election, and was siphoning votes from Nixon across the country. Nixon’s response was to push two racialized appeals to the front of his campaign: opposing “forced busing” and enforcing “law and order.”
In 1969, Nixon coined the term, "the silent majority" to delegitimize vocal opponents of the Vietnam war. Nixon claimed to represent the interests of the "majority" — specifically a white majority. In the years since, the term, “the vocal minority” has been used as a way to deligitimize expressions of outrage by black civil rights workers, feminists, defenders of LGBTQI rights, and other groups seeking to bring about change. During the 2016 campaign, President-elect Trump repeated the phrase multiple times.
The Powell memo was based around a 4 point plan to organize and entrench corporate power. This plan was implemented by and large, and the ramifications over the past 40 years have been disastrous for people of color, poor people, and women. Some of the most widely-known effects were the founding of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, the creation of conservative TV and radio news networks, and the founding of the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.
The Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970, introduced the still-standing model of drug scheduling, and made drugs like cocaine, heroine, and marijuana illegal. At the same time, he declared the first "war on drugs," expanded drug enforcement agencies, created mandatory sentencing and introduced no-knock warrants — allowing law enforcement to enter a property without “immediate” warning. They’re intended to be used in the most dangerous of searches, but, today, somewhere around 20,000 such raids occur each year. The majority of charges are related to drug crimes, and the majority of those defendants are black.
In many ways, however, Nixon's war on drugs is mild compared to how drastically it expanded during the Reagan administration. In 1982, President Reagan expanded the war drastically, making it in the words of Michelle Alexander, "a literal war."
The Conservative Caucus of State Legislators formed a nonprofit lobbying committee to create standardized state-level legislation to serve the conservative platform. ALEC has produced and pushed for model bills on a broad range of issues at the state level, including: reducing corporate taxation, lowering taxes on the super wealthy, increasing barriers to immigration, weakening and abolishing environmental regulations, tightening voter identification rules, undermining labor unions and opposing background checks. These bills are almost all sponsored by corporations and taken up by conservative politicians. Many bills are copied word-for-word from ALEC's model bills.
Among ALEC's founders is Paul Weyrich, who also co-founded the Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority — and later spoke candidly about how the Republican party doesn't want everyone to vote.
In 1979, the Supreme Court adopted a “racism as hate” model, requiring proof of explicit malice to prove something is racist. This bar has proven almost insurmountable, barring recorded or in-court uses of racial epithets. Since then, the court has never found discrimination against non-whites — even though just 15 years had passed since the Civil Rights Act was passed.
One of the first moves to prevent integration was pushing the idea that everyone should be color-blind. Among the first politicians to push for such an approach was Barry Goldwater. In the 1960s, shortly after Brown vs. Board of Ed, he argued that because the Constitution is color-blind, integration is just as bad as segregation.
It took years for such an approach to take hold. When a color-blind approach first reached the Supreme Court, it was summarily rejected because it was seen as an obvious attempt to avoid integration. President Nixon, however, appointed four new justices to the Supreme Court during his tenure, paving the way for a color-blind approach to become law. This ultimately set the precedent that racism is exclusively individual, rather than structural. The result was a systematic dismantling of all government programs that sought to address any of the harms of slavery or Jim Crow — just 15 years after the Civil Rights Act.
A major part of the pretense of color-blindness was shifting toward discussing ethnicity rather than race. People could pretend their racism was merely about cultural difference — something “acceptable” to talk about.
After securing the Republican nomination in 1980, Reagan launched his official campaign at a county fair just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town still notorious for the Klan lynching of three civil rights volunteers just 16 years earlier. Reagan selected the location on the advice of a local official, who had written to the Republican National Committee assuring them that it was an ideal place for winning “George Wallace-inclined voters.” The candidate arrived to a raucous crowd of 10,000 white people and he assured them, “I believe in states’ rights.”
In 1984, Reagan came back, this time to endorse the neo-Confederate slogan “the South shall rise again.” As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert concludes, “Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”
In 1981, the Republican National Committee (RNC) joined with state Republican committees to ostensibly address voter fraud, but actually to suppress Democrat voter turnout. It targeted communities of color across the country. In New Jersey, after a mailing campaign to intimidate Black and Latinx voters armed, off-duty police officers were sent to the polls on Election Day in neighborhoods largely populated by people of color. These officers wore armbands labeled “National Ballot Security Task Force" and stood near signs warning people about the task force’s patrol. It led to the Republican governor winning the race. However, the DNC sued the RNC -- and won -- for blatant discriminatory voter suppression. This was not the first instance of such suppression, but served as a harbinger for an expansion of such tactics in following years.
Currently, 6.1 million people are prohibited from voting due to felon disenfranchisement — 2.2 million of them are black citizens. Read more at The Sentencing Project
Hostility toward integration quickly morphed into opposition to welfare — largely due to the way welfare was portrayed by Republican officials. Reagan repeatedly invoked a story of a “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” The other image he invoked was "some young fellow ahead of you to buy a T-bone steak while you were waiting in line to buy a hamburger." Both images were designed to conjure the image of black welfare recipients who were exploiting the system — without actually stating the race of either.
Conversely, Reagan implied that white people were the workers, the tax payers, people playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet while people of color partied with their hard-earned tax dollars. The opposition to welfare was two-fold — first, preventing transfer of resources to an, "undeserving poor," who were pdisproportionally people of color, and second to reduce government meddling particularly in states' business, which was itself a fire stoked around opposition to integration.
Affirmative action emerged in the late 60s as part of an attempt to foster integration in schools and workplaces. While it was always te object of some resentment, it had broad support until the 1980s when President Reagan appointed an outspoken critic of affirmative action to head the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.
By the time Reagan won re-election in 1984, the GOP's position on affirmative action was, "We will resist efforts to replace equal rights with discriminatory quota systems and preferential treatment. Quotas are the most insidious form of discrimination: reverse discrimination against the innocent." Note that it doesn't say reverse discrimination against white people, but instead makes white people and innocent people synonymous. This message spoke particularly to well-off white people by hinting that their jobs and children's access to top colleges were at risk.
Phrases like, "law and order" and the "war on drugs" are coded ways to discuss denying rights to people based largely around race; they are terms deeply rooted in maintaining racial discrimination and apprehension. While this didn't begin in the 1980s, the system of mass incarceration massively expanded. The following is excerpted from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander:
In 1988, President Bush was behind in the polls — until he listened to the advice of Lee Atwater and began running an advertisement based on a black man named Willie Horton, who was serving a life sentence for murder. The ad nnarrated the case with his mug shot on screen and flashing words like, “kidnapping,” “stabbing,” and “raping” on the screen — before concluding with, “Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.” The ad didn't talk directly about race; instead it used Horton’s image and the apprehension around law and order that had been built since the Nixon campaign. The ad allowed the Bush campaign could benefit from stoking racialized fears and antagonism without directly talking about race.
While much of the history of dog whistle politics revolves around the Republican party, in the 1990s Democrats under Bill Clinton adopted much of the same language — particularly around law and order. The Violent Crime Act, signed by President Clinton, was the largest crime bill in history of country. It provided for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and significantly expands government’s ability to deal with “criminal aliens.” Beyond that, it authorizes adult prosecution of those 13 years and older charged with violent crimes, implements three strikes policy, mandatory minimum sentences, and expanded the federal death penalty.
In 1996, media magnate Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, a conservative news network designed to put forward the news with as conservative a slant as possible. At the helm was Roger Ailes, the man responsible for Richard Nixon’s media strategy. Unsurprisingly, Fox has since engaged in incessant racially charged attacks, recycling the coded language that stoked the same racial resentments that the Republican party had mobilized since the Southern Strategy.
It's worth noting that Fox News is not the first conservative television news network. Within a couple of years of the Powell memo, Joseph Coors (the ultra-conservative head of Coors beer) created a television network called Television News Incorporated. And just like with Fox News, Roger Ailes was on board, serving as the network’s news director.
The Tea Party began with in 2009 with a rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange by obscure CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, calling all capitalists to show up and start organizing — and in particulary, to show up around the country on tax day. The burgeoning populist movement was given a huge amount of institutional support by Fox News, the Koch brothers, and many GOP officials.
Tea Party activists fervently denied they were racist, but the demographics of the movement also made it clear that their message resonanted far more strongly with white people than anyone else. The Tea Party positioned themselves as racial victims, claiming that their ideology was based on fairness and common-sense economic policies. Tea Party rhetoric was steeped in racial stereotypes, especially about immigrants, Muslims, and Obama, and they mobilized the anger and fear of everyday white conservatives. The Republican Party, trying to find a new label for their damaged brand, propped up an emerging grassroots movement in order to re-energize the GOP.
When SB 1070 was passed, it was by far the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in decades. It requires all aliens over the age of 14 who remain in the United States for longer than 30 days to register with the U.S. government, to have registration documents in their possession at all times, and required that state law enforcement officers attempt to determine an individual's immigration status during a "lawful stop, detention or arrest." Ultimately, though some of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court, it upheld the most disputed part: requiring police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are not in the U.S. legally.
After Republicans swept into control of a huge number of state legislatures in 2010, they passed laws to restrict voting at the state level. Eight states passed laws to restrict voting between 2010 and 2012, all disproportionately affecting people of color. In particular, they passed laws that cut early voting, eliminated same-day voter registration, created voting challenges that could be made by one’s fellow citizens, and required photo identification for voting.
In addition to passing voting restrictions across the South, Republicans in state legislatures across the country used the 2010 census to redraw districts in ways that concentrate left-leaning voters and spread out conservative voters — meaning while Democrats would win a few districts by landslides, Republicans would win far more districts in close races. While not strictly disenfranchisement, it is closely linked as it skews the system against voters in the most densely populated areas — who are more often people of color.
~ Civil Rights Leader and US Representative John Lewis
The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local governments do not pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down portions of the law, arguing the formula it used was based on old data. Since then, Congress has refused to pass a new formula, rendering much of the Voting Rights Act inoperable — clearing the way for states to pass restrictive voter laws that would previously have been illegal, including voter ID laws.