Progressive Strategists Find a Way to Break the Divide: Focus on the 'Strategic Racism' Used to Keep us Apart

Is this a blueprint for progressive victory?

On the same day California’s primary election produced decidedly mixed results last week — encouraging for Democrats, less so for progressives — progressive advocates gathered in Los Angeles learned about how politics in California (and nationwide) could be dramatically transformed by driving a stake through the heart of coded, dog-whistle racism, and by confronting it head-on with a call for cross-racial unity to create a better shared future.

The message — delivered in a two-hour presentation by communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio (author of “Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy,” my review here) — was the result of ayear-long research partnership between her, Ian Haney López (author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class”) and Demos, the public policy nonprofit. They produced a national study, as well as customized versions for California, Ohio and Minnesota, all with broadly similar results.

The central finding from a year of research, Shenker-Osorio explained, is the unexpected effectiveness of a suite of race-class narratives that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good. Not only can racial justice and economic issues be addressed simultaneously, other issues involving the common good — such as environmental protection — gain support as well, even if they’re not being talked about directly.

“We set out first and foremost to speak to and mobilize the base,” Shenker-Osorio explained, but the messages they came up with also won broad support among “persuadable” voters, who hold a jumbled mix of progressive and reactionary views as well.

López approached Shenker-Osorio about doing the project more than a year ago, she explained, calling him, “The man I blame for the loss of the last year of my life,” adding, “I like to say, it’s true what Mike Pence says, you should not go to dinner as a straight woman with a straight man. You’ll be locked into a project that lasts a year!”

Trump’s election motivated Demos as well, according to Tamara Draut, the organization's vice president. “The challenge to us was how we do two things: Really address the populist moment and continue to build momentum for it, and at the same time do it in a multiracial, inclusive way.” This pointed Demos toward López’s work as well. “What that said to us was that we needed  to tell this story about how race was being used in our politics to undermine the kind of solidarity that we need for progressive change to happen.”

Some forms of racist discourse in politics have gone well past "dog-whistling" into "foghorning," as Shenker-Osorio said. But the term is still relevant. “Dog-whistling as we used to know it was terminology like ‘forced busing,’ ‘welfare queen’ and ‘inner-city crime’ that didn’t say ‘black’ and didn’t say ‘brown,’ but we knew exactly what it was saying," she told Salon. "‘Illegal immigrant’ similarly does not say ‘brown,’ right? We’re still in an era in which everything is about race, and still the appeals are coded as if they were not.”

The politics may have gotten a lot more extreme in the last few years — especially with the overt emergence of white identity politics — but the coded language and core logic remains the same. “Dog-whistling is not merely about creating ill will towards communities of color,” Shenker-Osorio explained. “It's about cementing the notion that we cannot have an 'us,' we cannot have a collective, we cannot have shared things. We cannot have a universal single-payer health care system; we cannot have paid time to care for our families; we cannot have labor protections that cover us all — we can’t have an us because there's a them. And they don't work, they don't follow the rules, they overuse government services, and because there's a them, we cannot have things for us. So dog-whistling at its core is about undermining the notion of the collective, i.e., the principle of government.”

López observes that there's nothing entirely new about this “Democrats realized that this dog whistling was being used against them," he told Salon. They realized it as early as 1970; they just failed to come up with a good solution. They even, to their discredit, emulated dog whistling as a tactic to get elected. I have in mind here Bill Clinton,” he added. The question was what to do about it, and that was what excited him about this collaboration.

López describes Shenker-Osorio as "perhaps the leading thinker in the United States today about how to understand and talk to people about the economy.” Their work together produced “a quantum leap forward,” he said, moving from a critique of how dog-whistle politics works to a way of using that critique to inform and inspire activism, to “explain to people that coming together across racial lines can help them demand the government that works for all. ... It's actually a very positive, energizing, mobilizing message that people want to share.”

This was especially true for "base voters" (28 percent of the total in California, 23 percent nationwide), who embrace progressive ideas on race, economy and the role of government, but also for "persuadable" voters (52 percent in California and 59 percent nationwide), who embrace a mix of progressive and reactionary views.

A central aspect of the message, López explained, was a shift in thinking and framing. Instead of an opposition in which "the major problems in American life [are] either 'violence and communities of color' from a racial justice frame or 'economic hardship' from the class frame," present a message of unity: "The major problem in American life today is division, and the way in which division is being exploited by greedy billionaires and the politicians they fund. That completely changes how people respond."

If the big challenge progressives are confronting "is the intentional exploitation [and] intentional deepening of social division,” he continued, “that creates a fundamentally social solution: Our need to come together across races to solve the major problems that follow from division, the state’s engagement in violence against communities of color, and also a state that’s largely been hijacked by and for the rich.”

The transformation of Lopez’s political analysis into a mobilizing message was guided by principles Shenker-Osorio summarized in an online guide called “Messaging This Moment,” especially the first three: 1) Lead with shared values, not problems. 2) Bring people into the frame – offer clear villains and heroes. 3) Create something good, don’t merely reduce something bad.

Both of them were surprised by the narrative power they uncovered. A set of seven race-class narratives were tested with narrators of different races and genders, for a total of 10 test cases. All of them registered more positively than a Trumpian “opposition” message, and all but one outperformed a colorblind "economic populism" narrative, which has long been assumed to be the best response.

Not only did base voters and persuadables respond positively to such messages, with a willingness to share them with others, people moved toward increased support for the entire progressive policy agenda — including taxing big corporations rent control, criminal justice and immigration reform, and maintaining clean air programs paid for by a gasoline tax—the last of which showed the greatest gain in support. 

The top-performing narrative was “California’s Strength,” delivered by a Latina narrator:

California’s strength comes from our ability to work together – to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from or how much money they have. It’s time to stand up for each other and come together. It is time for us to vote for leaders who see all of us as equal, whether we are white, black, or brown, who respect all of our families, and who will govern for all of us.

Nearly as strong was one called “Working Families,” which gets even more specific about attacks on the common good:

No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening our seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for our hard times at poor families, black people and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can elect new leaders who work for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

The power of these messages stands in stark contrast with previous attempts to talk about race and class, which have routinely fallen into the “dependent clause approach,” Shenker-Osorio explained:

When we simply lay down a disparity and we do not provide a causal connection, people fill in the cause for themselves. So when we say, "Household wealth has taken this giant hit [and] this is especially true for African-Americans," what does the person conclude about why African-Americans do not have household wealth? Or why communities of color do not have good earnings? … It’s their fault!

That is why I bring you a race-class narrative. ... It is not a "race & class narrative." It is a narrative that weaves together race and class and makes a causal connection between these two issues. It explicitly names the need for cross-racial solidarity in terms of joining together with people of other races, joining together across racial difference. Not some generic, Kumbaya, we-all-need-to-get-on-the-same-page, we-all-need-to-get-together, we-all-need-to-be-as-one. It actually names racial difference -- it says we need to join across it for political change, in order to become, create and be a government that looks like all, reflects all and works for all, toward ... both shared prosperity and racial justice.

The good news is that “people have a hunger to take care of this division,” she said, and that the voters she calls "persuadables" are not only "with us at division, but they are with us at the notion of intentionally crafted division.” But there’s a catch: Persuadables are persuadable, meaning they can go either way. They must be addressed, specifically and repeatedly. 

“We often construct a false model of persuadables, that they exist in some sort of middle position,” Shenker-Osorio said. “I can assure you that there is no middle position between 'Immigrants contribute to our culture and community, we’re all the better for having them here,' and 'Immigrants are law-breaking, nefarious forces and we should torture them.' ... There’s no middle between that. That’s an on-off switch. What’s happening with the persuadables is that they toggle between [different] ideas of the way the world works.”

In political science terms, persuadables are a "split sample," Shenker-Osorio said. Among those who were offered the line “Focusing on and talking about race doesn’t fix anything," 63 percent agreed. But in what might seem a contradiction, among those asked to respond to the statement, "Focusing on and talking about race is necessary to move forward," 77 percent agreed. "So basically persuadables are like, ‘Good point!’ ‘Good point!’ ‘Good point!’”

What this research suggests is that progressives and liberals cannot simply be silent about race, as some Democrats in Washington seem to believe. “When we, the left, do not talk about race, the race conversation does not stop,” Shenker-Osorio said. “Because the race conversation is not ours to decide: It is happening every moment of every day. What happens is the only message that these persuadables are getting is white supremacy. The race conversation continues, it just doesn’t have our voice in it.

"And because the persuadables are completely and totally capable of having progressive views on race, among other things, but also completely and totally capable of believing bullshit, when we are silent about race ... we simply allow the other side to be the only message received.”

For too long, that’s exactly what’s happened. But it doesn’t have to be that way any longer. “The race- class, narrative project from the outset is designed to speak directly and honestly to both racial justice and economic inequality, and to not prioritize or demote either one of those,” López said. “What we’re putting forward is an approach that is unified, but with different communities can have different emphases,” as more extended discussions unfold.

“So if we’re talking to racial justice activists or communities of color, I think the emphasis is on what we do about state violence against communities of color, and state disinvestment from communities of color,” which feeds directly into mass incarceration, police violence, mass deportation, etc. But the emphasis is not on “personal prejudice, but first and foremost strategic racism,” the intentional creation of racial divisions by those who wield power.

“For white communities,” López said, “I think the approach is to say that the biggest problems in your lives are economic inequality, and to understand that the sources of economic inequality flow from the fact that government has been hijacked by the greedy rich and their politicians, and that this hijacking has actually occurred because many people have been convinced that the biggest enemy in their lives are other poor people from different places with different faces and with different skin color.

"But they're not the biggest enemies on your lives. In fact, the biggest enemies in your lives are the people who are wielding all the power over government and the economy.” The solution is to join forces “with people, no matter what they look like or where they come from. Come together and demand a government that actually works for you.”

In either case, it's the same story, López continued. "And it's a story that works for racial justice activists and for economic populists. It's a unified story. It has slightly different emphases, but in no way – this is the most important point – in no way are the interests of one group of folks being sacrificed in order to speak to another group of folks.” In the end, López concluded, “Neither racial justice nor economic populism are possible without the other. Neither is taking a back seat. They must progress simultaneously.”

In the short term, Demos is already working to help apply the study findings in the midterm elections, by getting this message into the hands of candidates who might use it, Draut said. “Even in the whitest of places” some candidates are being dog-whistled, she continued, whether that means "anti-immigrant sentiment or things about the NFL, and kneeling during the anthem. So this is helping them deal with that, and pivoting to the need for us to work together across racial lines, so that we can all live a better life.”

Demos is also trying to think ahead, Draut continued.

As for the long-term perspective, we will keep doing this project after 2018. We’re getting ready to do some social media testing, because we want to build up a body of evidence that the response that progressives need to have to dog-whistle racism is not silence, and is not pocketbook issues. It's really telling the story about how they're deeply connected.

One of the things we've always realized is that this is the first step. Having a conversation about how racism is being deployed so that the one percent can affect the rules in their favor is part of the story. Ultimately, as a nation, we need to have a real "truth and reconciliation" about race and the roles played in this country. We're not there yet. So the first step is to begin a conversation now, where people are at, and on the playing field that’s been set.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.