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How Do You Talk About Race and Class?

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Ian Haney López, JD, the Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at University of California, Berkeley. Photo by Rachel Mondragon

By Larry Borowsky

When he spoke at The Colorado Trust’s Health Equity Learning Series in May 2017, Ian Haney López had already begun work on the follow-up to his seminal 2014 book, Dog Whistle Politics. The result, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, is due out in fall 2019. The publisher, New Press, describes Merge Left as “an essential road map to neutralizing the role of racism as a divide-and-conquer political weapon and to building a broad multiracial progressive future.”

Larry Borowsky spoke with Haney López by phone in June 2019. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about Merge Left. What was the genesis of the project, and how does it build on the analysis in Dog Whistle Politics?

You can think about Dog Whistle Politics as a critique. It’s a story about how the right has mobilized popular support for rule by the rich by using racism as a divide-and-conquer weapon. It explains what they did and how it played out over the last 50 years. It leaves open the question: “How can people who are interested in a thriving egalitarian democracy respond?”

Trying to answer that question became far more urgent once Donald Trump won the election. So a group of people and I launched a major research project about how you talk to people about the merged fate we all share, and the deep, inseparable connection between racism and class warfare.

I gather the research involved a certain amount of polling?

It was a year-long, multiphase project called the Race-Class Narrative Project. We started with activists who are already trying to build social solidarity—people in the foundation world, the union world, the grassroots world, people from churches. We asked, “How do you talk about race and class? How do you build solidarity?” Then we broadened this to focus groups involving African Americans, whites, Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants and others all across the country. Then we went to national polling with 2,000 respondents and statewide polling in four different states. This was an iterative process of thinking about how you build a core story that encourages people to reject divide-and-conquer politics and demand a government that works for everybody.

In listening to all these voices, did you hear a coherent message?

There’s one core insight, and then two surprising subsidiary discoveries that help explain the core insight. The core insight is: To build a broad cross-racial movement, we need to talk about racism not as interpersonal conflict between whites and non-whites, but as a weapon used by economic elites to divide and distract the population. That shift ended up being very powerful. It really resonated with people.

Here are the two big surprises to me, as somebody who’s studied race for 20-plus years. First, the vast majority of whites who hold racially reactionary views simultaneously hold racially progressive views. I did not know that. … They toggle back and forth between them. This is extraordinarily good news, because it means progressives don’t need to dismantle a mountain of racism. Progressives need to speak to the anti-racist, racially egalitarian values that are already held by the majority of whites. That was a big “aha!” moment.

The other big insight has to do with communities of color. I had assumed that communities of color would respond well to conversations about structural racism—incarceration, mass deportation, institutional bias, disinvestment in our cities and our schools. That type of conversation is really powerful and popular with progressive activists, whites and non-whites. But it doesn’t work well in communities of color, generally. People experienced discussions of entrenched racism as overwhelming and oppressive. It made people very skeptical that change was possible.

That’s the “mountain of racism” you were talking about.

Exactly. Whereas, when we said to communities of color, “Racism is being used as a weapon against all of us—white, Black and Brown—and whites have an interest in joining a cross-racial coalition so that government actually helps people and not corporations”—well, that generated a lot of enthusiasm and a sense that coalition might be possible. If whites had their own genuine self-interest in joining in coalition with people of color—if it wasn’t just a moral appeal that racism is wrong—it made people of color much more optimistic about the potential for that coalition to actually come together and to successfully demand real change.

When you say people simultaneously hold racially fearful views and progressive views, is there an example that stands out from your research to illustrate this?

Let me just take one instance. Two white guys in Ohio. They’re saying things like, “There’s nothing more frustrating than going into a store and seeing a Black person load up their grocery cart and then whip out their welfare card to pay for it, while you’re struggling to buy five items.” They’re invoking the “welfare queen” imagery. These same guys, later in the conversation, said, “We love the way our children have friends across racial lines. They don’t seem to understand differences between us. They genuinely love their Black and Brown friends.” One of these guys said, “My daughter has a Black doll that’s absolutely her favorite doll. I use that as my Facebook photo.” So he’s not just admiring this in his child, he’s constructing his public persona around an image of anti-racism. He’s saying, “I don’t want a racist world. I want a world of love across racial lines.”

The other thing they said that was so important was, “When it comes to people being hungry, needing an education, or needing shelter, government ought to provide for that. And I’m willing to pay taxes to make sure that government can protect everyone in this country from going to bed hungry or without a roof over their head.”

So the question becomes: Which way do they get pulled? If they get pulled by a message that says Black and Brown people are ripping off the system, we get one sort of society. If they get pulled in the direction that says, “We are connected across race lines, and that connection is how we make sure government takes care of everybody,” we get a very different type of society.

The task for progressives is to speak to those people in the middle in a way that connects with values they already hold—to say, “These values are the route to a better world for your children.” And one thing to emphasize: it’s not just whites in the middle. The majority of people of color fall into this persuadable middle that can be pulled in one direction or another, too.

So who is speaking that way? We know who’s pulling persuadable audiences in the direction of racial anxiety. Who’s pulling them toward the more progressive values they hold?

Merge Left is addressing two narratives from the broad left, what we might call the Class Left and the Race Left.

The Class Left is saying, “We need the government to help working families, so let’s avoid divisive conversations about race. But don’t worry, because people of color are disproportionately poor, this is going to help people of color. So economic populism achieves not only economic justice, but also racial justice.” And the Race Left is saying, “What’s happening in communities of color is not primarily about economics. It’s about state violence. It’s about over-policing, incarceration, mass deportation, poisoned water, decrepit schools, toxic environments. Economic justice won’t repair centuries of harm to communities of color.”

What we’re trying to do with Merge Left is formulate a message that says the way forward on both economic and racial justice is to do both by building cross-racial solidarity. Indeed, we’re saying the only way to do either is to do both—that both economic populism and racial justice can only be achieved when people reject dog whistle politics and elect politicians who aren’t beholden to racially fearful constituencies, but instead are loyal to multiracial constituencies that believe in our merged fate.

That’s different from what either the Class Left or the Race Left is saying. It doesn’t prioritize class or racial justice. It combines both in a simple story that says, “Racism and state violence against communities of color are class weapons that enforce rule by the rich.”

Now, who’s doing this? In the 2018 election cycle, the Minnesota Democratic Party did a whole campaign around this race-class approach. It was called Greater Than Fear, and it was very successful. They took control of the state legislature, they won the governorship, they won several high-level state offices, a U.S. Senator, two congresspeople. Minnesota in 2018 is a good example of what this could look like.

Here’s another example. SEIU, which was a partner in the Race-Class Narrative Project research, is trying to organize a multiracial workforce. You do that by talking about the strategy of division. AFL-CIO had an economic and racial justice advisory council—I happened to co-chair that—and they’re very comfortable with the idea of the bosses using race as a divide-and-conquer weapon. So unions are in a very strong position to make the shift to a full race-class analysis.

I would also say this makes a tremendous amount of sense for church groups. A lot of church groups are committed to this idea of recognizing our shared humanity and interrelatedness, taking care of the least among us. This sort of social gospel is really facilitated by a story that says, “Division is intentional. Social solidarity has to be intentional, too.”

So in essence, if dog whistle politics is a narrative of divide and conquer, Merge Left is the direct antidote to that—a narrative of unite and build. There need be no Race Left – Class Left conflict at all.

That’s exactly right. We need a simple story that helps people understand who their allies are, who threatens them, and what the way forward is. The right provides that story, but the left has not. The left needs that simple story: The people who threaten us are the greedy economic elites who manipulate social hostilities. Our allies are other working families—wherever they come from, whatever their color, whatever their gender identity, they’re our allies. The route forward is a government and an economy where the rules give every person dignity and a chance to thrive.

You can come into that story from different places. You can come into it as a labor organizer, a prison abolitionist, an environmentalist. The Green New Deal, averting climate collapse, saving our planet, that’s the single most pressing issue any of us confront. Yet this requires the same core narrative. What is keeping us from working together to stop the petrochemical industry from hijacking governments, writing the rules of the economy, writing the laws? It’s divide-and-conquer politics.

Why has the right over the last 50 or 60 years been so much better crystallizing a core narrative than the left?

The critical failing on the left has been in how it talks about race. The broad left, the Democratic intelligentsia, has believed that if you named racism as a weapon, you played into the hands of the right because you deepened the sense that liberals care about people of color but don’t care about whites. That’s been the Republican Party’s main message ever since Richard Nixon in 1968.

So liberals have tried to message successfully without referencing the main weapon being used against us. That’s just a recipe for disaster. How can you tell a compelling story where you can’t name the main antagonist? Good luck with that. When we talked to people in our focus groups, everybody understood that we’re racially divided. But the right is saying, “We’re racially divided because people of color are threatening.” Meanwhile, the left has been mainly trying not to talk about it. We need to name this weapon. Because unless we name it, we can’t defeat it.

We ought to say, “The reason we’re racially divided is because economic elites want us divided. They benefit when we’re divided. That’s a weapon against you and your family. People of color are not the threat. The threat comes from economic elites who are trying to manipulate us so they can rig the rules for themselves. We need to come together because this is how we save our children.”

That’s the message that needs to be picked up and repeated.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.