How Democrats Should Be Talking About Race and Class

Joan C. Williams

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An unfortunate pattern is emerging in the way the Democratic presidential candidates talk about race and class: as if never the twain shall meet. 

This week’s debate provided a typical example. Race hardly came up at all. Democrats too often ignore race unless directly asked about it. Even then, their discussion often is confined to criminal justice or immigration issues. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren focus on class, typically by decrying “oligarchs” (to quote Sanders) and the rigged economy. But a pure economic message, new research shows, will lose to the racial-fear message President Donald Trump has honed.

For a millisecond after the 2016 election, in which Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio went for Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2012, Democrats were willing to talk about class and race together. There was a sudden upsurge of interest in the white working class that had bled out of the Democratic coalition. But gradually a consensus emerged that these voters were driven not by any legitimate economic concerns but only by racial anxiety — as if the two are mutually exclusive. After Charlottesville and so much more, progressives did not want to be seen as giving in to racism. Neither did Democratic candidates concerned about two groups of voters crucial to winning Democratic primaries: the party’s left wing and constituencies of color. Conversations about class, and about appealing to working-class whites, became almost taboo.

An important new book by a prominent critical race scholar, Ian Haney Lopez, reopens the conversation about class in a very different key. In “Merge Left,” Lopez deconstructs how adeptly Republicans have used racism to create a “nasty trap”: “Name Trump’s racism and help him build support with his base, as shared victims of alleged liberal bigotry against them. Or stay silent on demagoguery, and let him whip up racial hysteria uncontested.”

The way out of this trap, Lopez argues, is what he calls the “race-class message.” The first step is to point out that Trump and his allies are manipulating racial resentments as a strategy. "What if we can show voters that racism is a class weapon? Then the root conflict would become rich versus the rest of us, white, Black, and brown, native and newcomer.”

Lopez points to survey data from the progressive group Rural Organizing in which three-quarters of rural Americans agreed with the following statement: “Instead of delivering for working people, politicians hand kickbacks to their donors who send jobs overseas. Then they turn around and blame new immigrants or people of color, to divide and distract us from the real source of our problems.” To test similar messages, Lopez worked with pollsters and consultants including Anat Shenker-Osorio, Cornell Belcher of Brilliant Corners and Celinda Lake’s polling firm. Their new findings show that the race-class angle appealed not only to the Democrats’ progressive base (23% of those polled), but also a much larger group Lopez calls “the persuadables” (59%).  The national survey also found that the race-class message is very effective with advocates, as measured by their enthusiasm to spread it.

There are four main points for Democrats to remember. The most important takeaway: In the matchup with a Republican racial-fear message, a Democratic colorblind economic message loses. (I have advocated such a message in the past; I stand corrected.) White, African-American, and Latinx respondents all find the race-class message more convincing than colorblind economic populism — and by comparable margins. The race-class message achieves an astonishing 25-percentage point jump in popularity over an economic message that was silent on race.

Second, Lopez and his team find it’s important not to fault people simply for being rich, as when candidates lambaste “oligarchy” or “billionaires.” That may be just fine for the progressive base, but most Americans admire the rich, in part because an astonishing array of Americans with modest incomes think of themselves as just-about-to-be-rich. This is true of both working-class whites and people of color.

Instead, Democratic candidates should focus on character defects, using such messages as “Greedy special interests hold us back, dividing us against each other by blaming Black and brown people for our problems so they can rig the rules in their favor.” Calling out the tactic may be particularly effective with working-class whites, who pride themselves on telling it like it is — as distinct from professional-class whites, whom they fault for being phony. In a classic study by sociologist Michele Lamont, one man put it this way when explaining why he left his messenger job on Wall Street to work as a firefighter: “In big business, there’s a lot of false stuff going on. … At least at the job in the firehouse, if you’re a jerk, someone is going to tell you you’re a jerk.” An auto mechanic told Lamont something similar: “You know what I hate? Two-face. I can’t stand that. … Why be a fake?” Thus far, only Trump has tapped into this attraction to straight talk. 

Third, the researchers find it’s important to mention white people along with black and brown people. Otherwise, white people assume they are being left out. So candidates should try something like: “When we come together we can get good jobs, good schools, and good healthcare for all working people, white, Black, and brown.” Pete Buttigieg nailed the race-class message in the September debate when he spoke of the need to transcend “this framework that pits us against each other, that pits a single black mother of three against a displaced auto worker. … Where I come from, a lot of times that displaced auto worker is a single black mother of three.”

Finally, Lopez also finds that racial-justice messages focused on the history of race in America or structural barriers to advancement — issues advocates want to talk about — deflate support among Democratic voters. Neither whites nor voters of color want to go there. What works is a sense of linked fate across color lines and communities, which taps into Americans’ hopefulness and idealism. To improve the lives of people of color, you need to convince whites that the pain points affecting people of color are negatively affecting white people, too. That’s not hard, as current conditions show. Critical race theorists call this “interest convergence,” after the late scholar Derrick Bell’s work.

Democrats, particularly in primaries, tend to forget that most people don’t vote based on the detailed policy proposals we saw the candidates squabbling about onstage this week. They vote because they feel a candidate has connected with their problems, feels their pain, and offers to reconnect them with the American dream. The candidates should refocus on that, rather than looking for opportunities to launch well-rehearsed zingers at each other.

Trump and his allies have shown that when people lose touch with their hopes, they give way to their fears. Lopez’s research provides a formula that will enable us all — white, black and brown — to tap into our better selves.

To contact the author of this story: Joan C. Williams at williams@uchastings.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joan C. Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law. She is the author of "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America."

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.