Governing with words: The political dialogue on race, public policy, and inequality in America

Published date01 September 2017
Date01 September 2017
AuthorDaniel Sabbagh
Governing with words: The political dialogue
on race, public policy, and inequality in America
Daniel Gillion
Cambridge University Press, 2016, 203 pp., £19.99, ISBN: 9781107566613
Governing with words represents Daniel Gillions second book, following his The political power of protest of 2013
(Cambridge University Press). In this relatively short work (208 pages in toto), the author attempts to identify the
(direct and indirect) effects of federal politiciansuses of explicitly race-conscious speechor the lack thereofon
both public policies and societal attitudes. Based on a computer-assisted statistical analysis of an extensive data set
including every volume of the Public Papers of the Presidents series published in the Federal Register from 1955 to
2012, as well as all the documents in the Congressional Record from 1995 to 2012 of which an electronic version
was publicly available, Gillion, first, charts the ebb and flow of race-conscious discourse over time. The overall pat-
terns emerging from congressional speeches and statements from the Oval office suggest a rise from 1978 to the
end of Bill Clinton's second presidential term in 2000, followed by a gradual decline increasingly perceptible during
the Obama administration. This is despite the simultaneous increase in the proportion of black and Latino congres-
sional members (14 per cent in 2012 versus 10 per cent in 1995).
Second, the author sets out to demonstrate that race-conscious speech provides an impetus and operates as a
catalyst for addressing racial inequality in two ways. On the one hand, it facilitates the production of public policies
geared toward that goal (whether those require an explicit reference to race at the level of implementation or
remain formally race-neutral and would therefore qualify as indirect affirmative action; a helpful distinction that,
unfortunately, is not integrated into the quantitative analysis). On the other hand, race-conscious speech deriva-
tively shapes cultural norms and behavior(p. 24). That second claim is supported by a case study highlighting the
positive side effects of presidential communications about race and health extensively covered in a set of minority
magazines on levels of health awareness within minority communities (chapter four). At the end of the day, words
matter, and political discourse is a form[s] of government action(p. 4). That thesis is condensed in the central con-
cept of discursive governance, understood as operating in a separate sphere from policy formulation(p. 8, foot-
note 8).
Despite a few counter-intuitive statements (is unemployment really an issue[s] that affect[s] blacks and whites
equally(p. 79), given that in 2016 the white unemployment rate (7.9 per cent) was nearly twice as high as the black
one (4 per cent)?), and notwithstanding the systematic, legitimacy-conferring yet ungrounded labelling as dialogue
of presidential statements often directed at a passive audience, Daniel Gillion's book is a substantial, valuable, and
thought-provoking contribution to the literature on race and public policy in the United States. However, the main
argument is less than fully convincing, for at least two reasons.
First, the findings that support it are sometimes artificially inflated, while those that do not are downplayed.
Thus, while the author acknowledges the existence of a negative correlation between the emphasis on race and the
ability to get bipartisan support for a bill in Congress (p. 121), he devotes more space to discussing exceptions to
that trend. The most egregious example involves the enactment of a 1996 statute designed to prevent and repress
the burning of (mostly) black churches in Southern states (pp. 10810), an outcome largely determined by the
856 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2017;95:856860.

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