Race, class and justice: After the midterms, a new way forward for Democrats

Scholar Ian Haney López has a message about how progressives can win, no matter what happens on Tuesday

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 6, 2018 8:00AM (EST)

Ian Haney López; Donald Trump speaks at a rally. (AP/YouTube/Brown University/Photo Montage by Salon)
Ian Haney López; Donald Trump speaks at a rally. (AP/YouTube/Brown University/Photo Montage by Salon)

This week's midterm elections are likely the most important in recent American history, a referendum on the present and future of the country’s multiracial democracy. On one side there is Donald Trump and a Republican Party which has fully embraced white backlash politics and the lie that white Americans are under siege in “their own country.” Trump and his movement represent an emerging American form of fascism and a full-on assault on democracy. On the other side is the Democratic Party and its multiracial coalition of mostly younger, more educated and cosmopolitan voters who correctly see in Donald Trump and his movement an existential threat to their human rights, safety, dignity and prosperity.

Running through both sides of this fractious political divide – what feels like a domestic cold war about to turn hot — are old and unresolved questions about the relationship between race and class in America.

Donald Trump bellows about the “forgotten” (white) American and taking the “country back” for the (white) “working class.” This is fake populism and classic Herrenvolk right-wing "producerism." Or to put things more simply, white identity politics repackaged as something else.

In response, the Democratic Party have struggled to create a unifying narrative. Too many of its most vocal spokespeople – especially on the left – have suggested that “identity” politics and too much focus on issues of race and gender allowed Donald Trump to steal the presidency from Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016.

Ian Haney López has a solution for the Democrats – and the country. He is Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of many articles and several books, including “White by Law” and, most recently, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.” Lopez is also a senior fellow at Demos and director of the Haas Institute’s racial politics project.

López’s new research project suggests that Democrats need to embrace a more sophisticated way of talking about race, class and human rights as being inseparable from one another. Ultimately, it is plutocrats like Donald Trump, Republican donors and funders, and other members of the 1 percent who are using racism -- as they have done throughout American history -- to divide and conquer, leaving the large majority of people less prosperous, less secure and less free.

How do racial “dog-whistle” politics play into this right-wing strategy? What does white racial identity mean for white Americans at present? In what ways has Trump-style white identity politics actually hurt white people? How can a smarter and more nuanced discussion of race and class unite voters in support of the Democratic Party specifically, and liberal and progressive policies more broadly? How have right-wing libertarians and other conservatives combined racism with a narrative about “big government” to destroy the social safety net, make the rich even richer and more powerful, and hurt the American people as a whole?

My conversation with Ian Haney López has been edited for clarity and length.

How was Donald Trump able to win the White House? What do we know about that now that we didn't know two years ago? 

I would say that Trump’s path was eased by a half-century-long process in which the Republican Party purposefully remade itself as the white men’s party. They did this by harnessing racial demagoguery as a weapon. But the fact of the matter is that racial demagoguery is not a weapon which can be controlled. Every Republican politician who gets elected as a racial demagogue is vulnerable to being bested on the right by someone who’s even more extreme in terms of racial demagoguery.

The big advantage Donald Trump had was that he didn’t actually believe he was going to become president. Therefore he didn’t care about the fate of the Republican Party. This meant Trump had few if any constraints – beyond what worked strategically to his advantage – on his use of racial demagoguery. Because Trump was willing to go much further in terms of his racist innuendo, he ran the field on the Republicans. He took them all out.

You look at these folks: Mitt Romney had his own track record with racial demagoguery, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush started talking about deporting people. All of them were racial demagogues themselves, but they were constrained by the sense of what it might take to actually get elected, by the sense that Republicans needed a bigger base and a concern with their own integrity and public reputation. Trump was unburdened by any of that. Essentially what Donald Trump did was walk into a game that the Republicans had set up, one which had a few nominal constraints. He broke the rules and won the game.

There is a more or less straight line from John McCain and Sarah Palin to this moment with Donald Trump.

There is this deeper fear of actually naming what’s been happening in our country over the last 50 years. You have a lot of people who want to treat Trump like an anomaly and say, “Wow! That guy is out of control. If only we could back to 2016.” Here are the facts. In 2016 we were in a deep crisis as a country, a slow-moving crisis which has been on the march since the civil rights movement. Which direction are we going to go as a society? Will we proceed in the direction of multiracial democracy, or will we instead proceed away from democracy and towards rule by the rich? That question has been front and center in this country for the last 50 years. Trump didn’t raise that question. He only drew the dynamics into view.

Similarly, McCain brought Sarah Palin in and also engaged in significant racial demagoguery himself. He understood it was immoral. He understood it was racist. When McCain felt that his own election was jeopardized, he started talking about building a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border. McCain was more than happy to campaign with Donald Trump and with [former Phoenix sheriff] Joe Arpaio, and this is somebody that we know understood that those were racial demagogues. Shame on him! I think it’s a mistake to say, “Well, McCain was this wonderful centrist. If only we had more people like him.” No, McCain was very much a part of the problem.

Frankly, the people who refused to see McCain as part of the problem are part of the problem too, because they’re blinding themselves to the actual challenges we face as a country. Do we move self-confidently and purposefully towards multiracial democracy, or do we follow a set of leaders who are intentionally and strategically dividing us by race, moving us away from democracy and toward rule by the rich?

I have a standard warning I give when writing about Trump and this moment, or giving talks about it. I point out that America’s multiracial democracy is contingent and in many ways an outlier in the country’s history. White backlash under Trump and the Republican Party is a threat to post-civil rights America, a country too many people – especially younger Americans – have taken to be a norm and a given for all time. Are my worries and cautions misplaced? 

Not at all. If I were to push back at all, I’d say it’s not clear to me that we have yet achieved a multiracial democracy that we might be in the process of losing. We moved dramatically in that direction in the 1960s, but then, very quickly, progress was cut off. Definitions are important. When I use the term “multiracial democracy,” I mean a democracy in which all people are fully enfranchised and people are not disenfranchised in a way that significantly parallels the country’s racial hierarchy. When have we had that in the United States?

Since the mid-1970s, we’ve been moving back quite aggressively from that ideal. If you look at what’s been happening with the Republican Party, essentially from 1980 onward, they came to understand that their election depended upon disenfranchising people of color. They have been aggressively pursuing the disenfranchisement of people of color through such policies as felony disenfranchisement laws, gerrymandering and now this whole narrative about almost nonexistent “voter fraud.”

Meanwhile, of course, these are the same Republicans who will not lift a finger to ensure that our voting systems are protected against hacking by Russia. There is a profoundly antidemocratic impulse at work on the American right wing, and it’s embodied institutionally in the Republican Party. It has forestalled any actual move towards multiracial democracy.

This hostility towards multiracial democracy is part of a hostility by Republicans and conservatives to democracy more generally. For example, the rule of law, freedom of the press and what is happening with America’s courts from the appellate to the federal system also show how the conservative movement is hostile to democracy. Trump is just more obvious about it.

The right-wing assault on the judicial branch is also a clear example of how conservatism and racism are one and the same thing in America at present.

Yes, although I would not go that far. I would say that the Federalist Society for example takes a view of race relations which they claim is “anti-racist.” Yet it’s a view that tends to ensure the continuation of white dominance. But this is not just Trump. Conservatives have been engaged in a purposeful remaking of the courts that has two complementary parts. This is pure “dog-whistle” politics.

One part is to attack the courts for their recent role in promoting racial integration and gender equality and to say, “Well, the courts are full of activist judges.” In this logic, the courts do not deserve legitimacy because they are promoting this illegitimate liberal agenda of integration and gender equality: “We have to get rid of activist judges.” What that means in practice is that we have to install court justices who are hostile to the basic idea that human rights should exist for everybody in society.

The other half of this logic and strategy is that conservatives are going to take the opportunity to put on the court justices and judges who are friendly to the business community. This is part of one big strategy.

The more we shut down human rights as a society, the more we create space to open up for a pro-business orientation. What we have in the Supreme Court as it exists now – and where Brett Kavanaugh will only make this worse – is an institution that is historically one of the most hostile to civil rights and one of the friendliest to big business. That is a product of dog-whistle politics.

How does this work? Right-wing politicians say to voters, “Hey! People of color are a threat. You know who else is a threat? Government and in particular, the courts, because the courts keep forcing you to have to deal with these people. Let’s remake the courts so that you’re protected from these activist judges.”

In the process of remaking the courts, they install business-friendly judges who are busy making life difficult for unions, making life difficult for people who want to sue corporations, making life wonderful for big money in politics, making life wonderful for polluters.

These are the wages of dog-whistle politics: The promise that you’re going to be protected from people of color and activist judges and government that protects them, when in reality what you’re really going to get is a judicial system and a government that helps rig the rules for the new plutocrats.

Here is an obvious and common objection by conservatives – especially College Republican types who still have Ayn Rand in their back pocket – to your observation. “We have to free business and get rid of regulations because capitalism and the market are antithetical to racism. Those are market inefficiencies. If we just free business, then racism will go away.” 

Anybody who says that is not paying attention to what’s actually happening in the economy. The whole idea of unfettered competition, that’s just theoretical libertarian nonsense. One would have to be crazy to believe that stuff.

What you really have is not deregulation, but re-regulation on the part of the corporations and the family dynasties and the lobbyists themselves. This is the rich writing the rules for themselves, and they write the rules in ways that protect them from market competition and liability when in the course of making billions they do damage to regular people.

The whole sort of college libertarian thinking is so much self-induced blindness about what’s lurking behind these arguments. It wouldn’t take but 15 or 20 minutes of serious reading to discover that very few people are actually serious about a deregulated marketplace. It wouldn’t take that much more to discover that many of the big libertarians, including Rand Paul and his father, are people who came to libertarianism as a way of opposing civil rights.

It doesn’t take that much reflection to recognize that libertarianism as a political ideology is most attractive to young (white) men of great means who can, because of their age and gender, imagine themselves as dominant and heroic and self-sufficient. And also because of their privilege and means, these same libertarians don’t worry about how they are going to pay for education, how they are going to pay for health care, how they are going to pay for shelter, how they are going to pay for food. They have not experienced the hardships of life or its sudden reversals.

Ultimately, there is a type of political and psychological immaturity to libertarianism. There is also a disregard for human rights, through libertarianism, for many different people in our society.

What are some examples of how racism actually hurts white people? Of course, there is what the historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as the “psychological wages of whiteness.” But there is a huge material component to whiteness as well.

I think you’ve hit on a really critical point. What is the relationship between most white people today, in 2018, and whiteness as an identity? Being considered “white” is a type of social identity. But in this moment with Trump we have an opportunity to show white folks that seeking meaning in being white is actually very dangerous to their welfare and the welfare of their children. In a remarkable way, given the politics of this crisis, we’re in a different position in 2018 than we were in 1968 -- let alone than we were in the 1600s -- to make this point.

For centuries the radical idea has been cross-racial solidarity between working people. But the reality has also been that the psychological and material benefits of whiteness have been enormous and thus sufficient to win over the loyalty of many whites. Whiteness has granted certainty about one’s place in society, one’s own inherent goodness, one’s own rationality, one’s human capacity, one’s ability to engage in self-governance.

Whiteness also provided jobs, neighborhoods, houses, the clubs, the churches, etc. These are tremendous benefits. How do they compare to the one percent, or the one-tenth of one percent, in terms of class and money? Relatively speaking, they're crumbs. But these wages of whiteness are still significant.

What has happened in 2018, by comparison? Two different things. On the one hand, if we think about the psychological wages of whiteness, for many whites those wages have been going down because of the civil rights movement, and going down in a way that I think many whites would actually describe as positive. That is, many whites have internalized the idea that foregrounding your sense of self in race pride is racist, immoral and ugly.

That has diminished the value of thinking of yourself as white. I can’t really be proud of being white: That’s morally wrong. That reduces the psychological wages of whiteness. Now, to be absolutely clear, many whites are fighting to reaffirm the wages of whiteness. This is the real meaning of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

On the other hand, what’s happened to the material wages of whiteness? Those have been going down as American society racially integrated. But even more profoundly, white racial fear has been weaponized by the rich over the last 50 years through dog-whistle politics. This is the basis upon which many whites have been convinced to support a siphoning of wealth from themselves and their families skywards, up into the economic stratosphere for the plutocrats.

With Donald Trump, progressives have a chance to make two critical points to whites. Critical point No. 1: Think about the psychological wages of whiteness in terms of Trump. Trump exemplifies what it means to build your identity around being proud of being white. It means to be a liar. It means to be cruel. It means to dehumanize others. It means to steal from others. It means to be a bully and a cheat. That’s what it means if you want to build your identity around white pride.

Second, look at Trump and ask yourself: Is whiteness helping regular white folks, or is whiteness just a weapon that billionaires can use against everybody? Trump gives us the opportunity to say to many whites that the biggest financial threat in your life comes from other whites voting their racial fears and handing the country over to greedy billionaires who only really care about themselves.

These two dynamics, I think, put us in a remarkable place in 2018 where we can say this old dream of cross-racial solidarity that has always foundered on the shoals of the value of whiteness to whites might finally be possible now -- if we can convince enough whites that seeking to be white as a source of identity is a moral disaster and a financial disaster as well.

How would you explain “dog-whistle” politics – the term is increasingly common in American political discourse but rarely properly defined? What examples would you offer of how dog-whistle politics hurt Americans on both sides of the color line?

Donald Trump went to the American people and said, “You need to worry about illegal aliens. You need to worry about Mexico sending rapists. You need to worry about Muslim terrorists.” He also said, “Crime in the black communities is awful. People can’t go outside without getting shot. We can fix that. We can ban Muslims. We can get tougher on crime in black neighborhoods. We can build a wall on the border.”

How are these examples of dog-whistle politics? On their surface, they do not mention race. They do not use a racial epithet. They do not come across as white supremacy, and yet just below the surface, that’s the narrative. It’s a narrative of racial fear.

Yes, Trump says “Muslims.” Yes, he says “Mexicans.” But his defense is that “Mexican” is a nationality or “Mexico” is a country. “Muslims” are a religion. That’s today’s dog-whistle. You have people engaging in a classic form of race-baiting that understands race as both ancestry and culture, but who then turn around and say, “These Mexicans are rapists.” That has nothing to do with race, right? That’s the dog-whistle: To use a racial provocation and to know that you’re doing such a thing. That’s the political speech.

What outcomes has this all enabled? The reality of what people are getting with Donald Trump and his Republican Party is a cabinet full of billionaires, rampant corruption, a $1.5 trillion tax cut for the very rich, a Department of Education that wants to make it easier for predatory companies to rip off people who are taking loans for a chance at a better life, an EPA that only cares about making sure polluters can make more money. This is all dog-whistle politics personified. One could not have a more powerful example of the way in which racially charged language is consistently used and where race is combined with rule by the rich.

What do we know empirically about white racial identity and public opinion in this moment of Trumpism?

The data is really compelling and very disturbing. We know that racial resentment, measured under what social scientists call the “modern racism” scale, is the No. 1 driver of support for Donald Trump. But there is an even better and more powerful means of measuring white antipathy towards people of color and government.

Since the early 1970s, what the American right-wing has been doing is conjoining race and government in the economy. Their basic message has been to fear and dislike people of color. There is another component to this as well:  Hate “big government” because it coddles “those people” with welfare and refuses to control them through criminal law. Turn away from government, trust the marketplace.

These three ideas, race, government and economy, are all linked. If you really want to understand how race is working in the United States, you really need to think about new racial frames that combine not only dislike for people of color, but also distrust in government and support for individual efforts in the marketplace.  When you look at that combination we see the correlation between those three values and support for Trump. The relationship is even more powerful than racial resentment.

There is a second component: What does race mean to whites? Race is a social construction. How is it evolving? How is it shifting? How is it responding to politics?

New research asked self-identified white people: "How important is being 'white' to you?" About 60 percent said anywhere from moderately to extremely important, and right around half said they felt that it was important for them to work together with other whites to protect the interests of whites as a group. Those are remarkable findings because what they’re telling us is there is a public etiquette of colorblindness. Whites routinely assert this set of rules when they’re trying to get people of color to stop talking about race.

Post-civil rights era racial colorblindness demands, “Hey, it’s wrong to foreground race. It’s wrong to notice it. It’s wrong to talk about it. It’s wrong to think about yourself and racial identity.” That might be the public rhetoric, but it’s not the reality, because at present somewhere upwards of half of whites are self-consciously thinking of themselves as white.

You are involved in an exciting new project which explores how we can think more strategically about the relationship between race and class in America.   

In this new research we asked a set of questions about race, class and government. We used the answers to sort the American public into three groups. We call them “base,” “persuadables” in the middle and “opposition.”

The “base” are people who basically said, “People of color are beset by structural problems. People are poor for structural reasons. Government has an important role to play.”

People who are the “opposition” took the opposite points of view. They said consistently that people of color are poor because there’s something wrong with them. Poor people are poor because there’s something wrong with them, and government is the problem. Base, we’re looking at about one-quarter of the population, 23 percent. Opposition, you’re looking at 18 percent. Let’s be crystal clear about that 18 percent. We will never get them. Their views are consistently hostile to progressive views on race, on what it means to be poor and the economy and the role of government.

But, that leaves about 60 percent of the people in the middle. This “persuadable” category constitutes three out of five Americans. With such a large group, it includes a lot of people of color. It includes a lot of Democrats. It includes a lot of union members. It also includes some Republicans, and maybe a few Trump voters, It’s a very broad group. When we look at this group, especially on race and the economy, what we found was that they held reactionary views. They would say things such as “Poverty among people of color is explained by a lack of effort.”

At the same time, they also held racially progressive views. They would toggle between the two perspectives. This was tremendously important because I think a lot of us have thought, “Wow! There’s a lot of racism out there, how are we going to overcome that?” Yes, there is a lot of racism out there, but it turns out there’s also a lot of racially progressive views. That creates the possibility of actually connecting with and activating those racially progressive views.

A common criticism of Hillary Clinton in the last campaign was that she talked too much about race and that this type of “identity politics" made her vulnerable to Trump’s right-wing “populist” message about class. How would you respond?

I think Hillary Clinton talked too much race in the wrong way. It was not the amount of time she dedicated to talking about race, but rather the way she talked about it. If we talk about race as white racism against people of color, that’s a frame which has negative effects both for whites and for people of color. What we found is that if we talk about racism that way, then white audiences feel implicated and they’re turned off. This is not at all surprising.

More surprising, we found that when we talked to communities of color and we offered a political analysis which said, “The main problem is politicians who are racists and racist voters who vote for them,” people of color were demobilized by that narrative. That story seemed to invoke 300 years of history. It made things seem insurmountable. People went very quickly from a sense of what’s politically possible to a narrative of what they could control as individuals. Whenever you see people shifting to stories of individual responsibility and what they can control, this reaffirms the right-wing framework that says, “You’re on your own. Take care of yourself. If you fail, it’s your own fault.”

Now let’s try a different frame: “Racism is a weapon of the rich that’s being used against all of us.” In our focus groups  we talked about racism as a weapon of the rich and explained that this is a "divide and distract" tactic that they are using against whites, against blacks, against brown folks, against Native Americans and Asian-Americans and immigrants. This is a weapon of the rich. This allowed whites to see how they are also targeted by the racial manipulation by the rich.

This narrative framework also allowed people of color to say, “We know that we need to fight racism, but now there’s a chance that white people might be in this fight with us too --maybe not with the same stakes, but still in this fight.”

There’s power to creating a sense of cross-racial solidarity, not alone on a moral ground because fighting racism is the right thing to do, but centered more firmly in the idea that fighting racism is the only way that white and black and brown folks are going to be able to thrive in this society. Cross-racial solidarity can defeat racism as a “divide and distract” weapon. It can get the government back on the side of people and have it create economic prosperity and racial justice for all people.

What are some narratives that you would suggest the Democrats use to defeat the Republican Party and Donald Trump?

Our research shows that there is a core narrative which progressives need to adopt.

Part one: Defeat, “divide and distract” as a tactic by insisting on cross-racial solidarity that includes whites and other communities of color.

Part two: Identify cross-racial solidarity as the way to take government back for working people and away from big business and the very rich.

Part three: Through government, build shared prosperity and promote racial justice.

Those are the three steps and it is applicable to many issues. Welfare reform, education, mass incarceration, mass deportation -- whatever policy you want to start with. The basic story is, “You know why we have mass deportation? Because politicians are running around trying to scare white people by saying that people of color are threatening. Well, they’re not. The real agenda is to distract us because we’re not paying attention to the way the rich and plutocrats are picking our collective pockets."

It doesn’t matter what issue you focus on. You can focus on the ones that are highly race-identified, like mass deportation or mass incarceration, public education and welfare. Or you can focus on issues like the environment, Wall Street regulation, and what’s happening in terms of higher education, free college, things that don’t seem directly connected to race. They’re all connected through the way in which government has been demonized.

Let’s reject distraction based on race or based on what we look like or where we come from or the gods we worship or the foods we eat, our gender, our sexual preference. Reject all of those distractions. Come together as working people to take this country back to elect the types of leaders we need -- and through these leaders demand human rights for all and a shared prosperity for all. That’s the basic narrative.

Good government, shared prosperity, human rights and shared prosperity creates a greater possibility of cross-racial solidarity. That is the message the Democrats really need to carry. If you think about 2016, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both eventually came to the position that we need to do economic justice and racial justice. Unfortunately, neither of them had a story about how they were connected.

We need to start focusing on the way in which the rich are ripping off all the rest of us while trying to distract us with fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants or Muslims. If we can recognize and defeat that ploy then we can come together across racial lines and take this country back.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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