How should Democrats talk about race?

America is one of the most unequal rich countries, with low taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and a threadbare welfare state. As a result, far too many Americans live short, painful lives — brought down by low wages, high debt, shoddy public services, pollution, and other problems. Any serious student of history knows that a major reason America has this problem is racism. Time and again, racists have blocked vital programs, or leveraged racism to slash welfare programs, or stoked racial animus to disrupt union organizing, and on and on.

A debate has been going for years now about the best way to deflate racism and build a United States that works for all its citizens. Two recent publications illustrate the poles of this debate as it has recently evolved. Heather McGhee, the former president of the think tank Demos, has a new book out on the question, The Sum of Us, which argues that race prejudice is ultimately against the interests of the white majority. In contrast, Marc Novicoff argues in Matt Yglesias’ newsletter Slow Boring that anti-racist messaging is a net loser in terms of votes.

There is something to both perspectives. But there is also a way to thread the needle between the two views. Bernie Sanders, along with many other socialist organizers, has developed a rhetoric around class inequality and racial injustice that both emphasizes how the fortunes of white America are tied to those of every other group, while still preserving the anti-racist message that has proved to be powerfully motivating in terms of activism.

It should be noted that McGhee and Novicoff are making different kinds of arguments. McGhee is mainly trying to convince white people roughly from the upper-middle class down that racism is harming their material interests. She uses the metaphor of the “drained pool,” referring to the hundreds of high-quality public pools that were spitefully closed after the 1960s when segregation was overthrown. If Black Americans had to be let in, then a great many white communities decided to stop swimming themselves.

Drained pool politics can be seen all over the place in this country. For instance, one of the things that killed the push for single-payer national health insurance under President Truman in the 1940s was (accurate) worries from southern racists that it would eventually mean integrated hospitals. That’s a big reason why many downscale and middle-class white folks today lack good insurance and access to good medical providers. Racism was a big factor behind the housing bubble too, as mortgage originators — following a long tradition of racist predation in housing finance — tricked many middle-class Black families into taking subprime mortgages. But millions of white people were similarly victimized, or lost their shirts in the ensuing price collapse. (I have made similar arguments regarding police violence, mass incarceration, and declining white life expectancy.)

It follows that it mostly isn’t the case that whites and Blacks face a zero-sum competition for resources, as is sometimes implied by progressive rhetoric. Instead whites, Blacks, and all other racial groups can rise up together by reducing overall inequality, in what McGhee calls a “solidarity dividend.” To a first approximation, in terms of dollars and cents it really is the top one percent versus everyone else. Indeed, in the case of health care, it would be theoretically possible to pass Medicare-for-all and actually lower taxes across the board, because the U.S. health-care system is so incredibly wasteful.

Novicoff is not disagreeing with any of that. He instead argues that framing facially race-neutral policy as being anti-racist in effect is bad politics, because many people are on board with egalitarian class policy but look askance at progressive views about racial justice. There is a “large segment of the electorate who favors big spending on entitlement programs but is skeptical of Black Lives Matter,” he writes.

On one level, this is a reasonable argument. The polls do indeed read this way, and there certainly are a lot of people who might be skeptical of anti-racism or even personally racist who still might be brought into a multi-racial coalition. (This indeed happened in 2008 and 2016.)

More broadly, I suspect one reason why “wokeness” has gotten a somewhat pejorative connotation is that in the hands of wealthy centrists or corporate brands, social justice ideals are transformed into empty interest group pandering or deflections from economic inequality. Cynical politicians “raise awareness” of the travails of ever-smaller micro-identities without proposing any serious solutions to solve them, while soulless corporations appropriate social justice lingo to hawk Doritos or fracking drill bits. At its worst, centrists will weaponize anti-bigotry to undermine egalitarian policy, as Hillary Clinton did when she suggested that breaking up the big banks would not “end racism.”

But that is not the only way to do social justice messaging. Bernie Sanders, for instance, is often thought to be somehow uninterested in racism — “left but not woke,” in the words of David Frum — but this is mistaken. In reality, Sanders (who is a much more careful and canny politician than many give him credit for) frames his social justice arguments around class, emphasizing the shared interests of working-class Americans of all backgrounds. Instead of pandering to whatever identity group is most prominent at the moment, he typically emphasizes how solidarity can defeat bigotry. “If you are willing to stand up to Trump’s desire to divide us up … together we will transform this country,” he said in a 2019 speech.

This kind of framing demonstrates that any broadly pro-equality policy will benefit all races while still carrying an anti-racist connotation. Now, the polling Novicoff cites doesn’t evaluate that kind of messaging in particular, but there is also more to politics than polls. In particular, testing agreement or disagreement can obscure the intensity of feeling, and clearly anti-racism has a strength in America that is not being captured in surveys. Let’s not forget that the police killing of George Floyd inspired the biggest mass protest in American history just a few months ago — and probably a majority of the protesters were white. There is a reason even politicians like Joe Biden are clumsily talking about racial inequality these days, and it’s not entirely cynicism. Mass street protests have a political power far in excess of their share of the population, and it is vital for Democrats to cultivate that kind of energy to combat Republican tyranny.

Finally, there is the question of the durability of an anti-racist coalition. McGhee cites personal experience that if you try to convince whites of the value of egalitarian policy without tackling race, a counter-message that does mention race even implicitly will push them away. This may or may not be true today — after all, the New Deal was built on a coalition that was both racist and multi-racial. However, it is definitely the case that any multi-racial coalition that relies on whites who have not been talked out of their racism some way or another is vulnerable. Southern whites used to be a key part of the New Deal coalition, but they were split from it by conservatives who successfully tied pro-rich economic policy to race prejudice.

Today, those conservative arguments mostly haven’t changed. If Democrats want to beat them for good, they can’t ignore them. But they’ll need to do better than hollow pandering. Luckily, there’s another option.

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