Ian Haney López: To combat racism, we need to talk about economic justice

Protester carries sign that says "We are the 99%"

A message that emphasizes common interest in economic fairness across all races is essential to neutralize racially divisive messages, says Ian Haney López, a UC Berkeley scholar and author. (Photo by Paul Stein via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ian Haney López traveled to Alamance County, North Carolina, a year ago to meet with political organizers who were campaigning to bridge deep racial and economic divides in that rural enclave. He arrived at an acutely American moment: Alamance Sheriff’s deputies had been shadowing the activists as they went door-to-door talking with voters, and some of the canvassers were rattled. That same weekend, the Ku Klux Klan was holding a local rally.

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Haney López is a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law, and despite the simmering local tension, he considered the visit a valuable opportunity. He has pioneered a communications strategy based on research that shows how racial division is often deliberately engineered by right-wing business and political interests to distract low-income and middle-class people of all colors from their shared economic interests.

By going door-to-door with the organizers from Down Home North Carolina and People’s Action, he hoped to get a sense of how his ideas were received by people in a deeply and sometimes fiercely divided community.

Ian Haney López

Ian Haney López (UC Berkeley photo)

“In this one county, on this same day, you had these two very different ways of organizing rural America,” Haney López recalled in a recent interview.” The Klan said, ‘Let’s take care of each other, white people. These non-white people are a threat to you. Let’s build a wall against them.’ And on the other side, People’s Action was saying, ‘Hey, rural America, race isn’t the most important factor. It’s a threat to you only if you let it divide you from your neighbors. Let’s build bridges across these divisions.’”

It’s one thing to work at a prestigious university in Berkeley, California, developing a set of theories about policy and communication, publishing influential books and running a popular Twitter stream. It’s another thing altogether to see how your theories are received in a conservative Old South community that is struggling with economic stress and a history of racial conflict.

Adding to the challenge, Haney López’s strategy requires a paradigm shift — among progressive leaders. To succeed, he believes, they have to change the world views and the tactics that have guided the movement for a half-century.

As economic insecurity rises, race becomes a live wire. Why?

Haney López is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at Berkeley Law, where his scholarship has focused on issues of racial justice in American law. He broke into national visibility with his 2014 book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford University Press). Last year, his book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America (The New Press) reinforced his reputation as an analyst of race, politics and communication in America.

This year Haney López launched the Race-Class Academy, based on a series of short videos that distill the ideas of the two books, plus new research. In simplest terms, the Academy proposes a provocative strategy for addressing racism by building a multi-racial movement focused on economic justice and injustice.

The cover of the book "Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America", by UC Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López

“Merge Left,” by UC Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López, was published in October 2019 by The New Press.

When he talks about Alamance County or the 2020 presidential election, Haney López is drawing from his study of the past half-century’s exploitation of dog whistle politics. Most, but not all, is the work of Republicans: Sen. Barry Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1964 campaign. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1972. Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of “welfare queens” in 1980, George H.W. Bush’s condemnation of Black convict Willie Horton in 1988 and Democrat Bill Clinton’s campaign to “end welfare as a way of life” in 1992.

Trump’s 2016 campaign and his first term as president have made racialized dog whistle attacks almost routine — Mexicans characterized as rapists, Black people as agents of urban carnage, Asians as carriers of disease, Muslims as terrorists, immigrants as invaders.

The pattern of racial division has grown more radical, Haney López said, because it has to distract from an escalating economic assault on the lower and middle classes. Government policy and judicial rulings, largely backed by Republicans and by their donors in the corporate and economic elite, have shifted billions of dollars from working families to the most wealthy Americans.

The gap between the top 1% of U.S. wealth holders and everyone else has been growing since the 1970s, and today has reached its widest point since 1928.

According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, the middle 60% of Americans in 1995 held about 32% of the nation’s wealth, while the top 1% held about 24%. By 2016, the middle class held 21% of U.S. wealth, compared to 29% for elite 1%.

In Merge Left, Haney López distills the dynamic with surgical precision: “Big money interests and the politicians and media outlets they bankroll have been selling the same basic lie for 50 years: Distrust liberals and government for coddling rather than controlling people of color. Demand that government start punishing dangerous and undeserving people, by slashing social spending, launching a war on crime, and a war on immigrants, too. Punish government itself, by cutting taxes to starve it and gutting its regulations. Trust yourself to the marketplace.”

And the strategy works — it’s playing out today as a war of us versus them across a spectrum of issues in the presidential campaign: immigration, crime, police violence, health care, education and even financial relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ultimate success, he concludes, is that the people who have lost upward mobility and live in persistent insecurity are often closely allied with the architects of their insecurity. Many are white Republicans, or working class white Democrats who have changed sides.

Racism vs. racial justice: The division is within us

We tend to see racism in stark terms: advocates for racial justice versus racists. Good versus evil. For Haney López, that only perpetuates a paralyzing conflict.

Strong evidence demonstrates, he said, that most of us draw on racist beliefs acquired by cultural osmosis. At the same time, most of us also believe in racial equality and are advocates for equality.

“What we’re seeing,” he explained, “is political leaders who’ve made a morally ugly decision that they can build popular support by appealing to the worst instincts in the American electorate, rather than calling forth our best selves. … That’s supported by the right-wing media system. And it’s not an accident.”

Through dog whistle politics and race-based issue framing, the right cultivates mistrust and fear, and over decades, these drive millions of voters into the Republican Party, or the Tea Party movement and, increasingly, into today’s white nationalism.

The paradox, he said, is that accusations of racism only reinforce this dynamic.

In this Race-Class Academy video, Haney López describes how calling out racism often backfires.

Racially coded dog whistles use words that go deep into our buried racial stereotypes: Rioter. Illegal alien. Police. Law and order.

But, Haney López said, “the language itself allows people to say, ‘This isn’t about race. This is about character. This is about bad people. And I’m one of the good people.’ That’s important, because people understand their fears, not as racism, but as common sense.”

“We tell those people, ‘Hey, you know, your fears about ‘illegals’ or your fears about ‘anarchists’ or your support for law and order — that actually makes you a bigot,’” he said. “But we don’t convince anybody. We just piss them off because they’re like, ‘I know I’m not a bigot.’”

They feel justified by common sense. They dig in and double down. Dialogue becomes more difficult. This, said Haney López, is the algorithm that helps to drive chronic, angry polarization.

The single most powerful political message for today’s environment

Years ago, Haney López was studying the mass incarceration of people of color, trying to understand the underlying racism. But he came to the startling conclusion that voter racism wasn’t the main problem. The problem was that political leaders and media organs were promoting dog whistle messages in order to trigger their fears and shape their reactions toward liberal government.

During this summer’s mass protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, Haney López tested various criminal justice messages in focus groups. Again, the results were startling.

Another Race-Class Academy video describes the surprising focus group responses to dog whistle messages.

He started with a racially provocative dog whistle message about police and protesters. When he tested a sharp-edged, anti-racism message popular among progressives who favor police reform, that scored six points lower among white people. Black and Latinx people responded more favorably to the progressive message, but the dog whistle appealed even to many of them.

Then, he tested a different message, one that described racism in class terms as a divide-and-conquer strategy. This was from the “race-class narrative” that he’s been developing in his research; it called for police reform to repudiate intentional efforts by politicians to divide communities, while urging people of all races to join together to take care of each other. That message proved far more effective among everyone who heard the new message — Black, Latinx and white.

Haney López and his research colleagues found similar patterns this year in research focused on Latinx political attitudes. Writing in a recent New York Times op-ed, they described how respondents reacted to the language of a tough on crime measure targeting immigrants. About 60% of white people in the focus groups agreed — but, surprisingly, Black and Latinx respondents matched that support.

Again, though, the researchers found it was possible to reverse those attitudes with a positive message that points to racist manipulation by the superrich and their allies and advocates inclusive coalitions of people who struggle with economic insecurity.

“The right has been winning by activating people’s racist ideas,” he said. “But the vast majority of those same people also hold anti-racist ideals, and those, too, can be activated. The challenge for us as progressives is to show people that their racially egalitarian ideals are a pragmatic way for them to improve conditions for all families, including their own.”

To be sure, the formula isn’t perfect. According to the research, Haney López said, about 20% of people are “unreachable” — hard-right reactionaries, white nationalists, even some elected officials. Still, he added, the research leads to a clear conclusion: “The most potent message right now is the message of a class-conscious, cross-racial solidarity.”

Of course this cannot work in America’s heartland — right?

A common assumption, often unspoken, is that the divide between urban and rural America is so acrimonious that it cannot be healed. But even in rural areas, the race-class narrative has been tested with compelling results.

In 2018, a Minnesota campaign called “Greater than Fear” focused on the midterm elections. Using strategies developed by Haney López and others, it sought to neutralize race-baiting and anti-immigrant rhetoric with a message emphasizing the care and respect that unite state residents behind goals of racial and economic justice.

In clear, engaging terms, Minnesota’s “Greater Than Fear” campaign appealed to the better angels of the state’s voters.

The result was stunning: Democratic candidates were elected governor, lieutenant governor and to other top state offices. They won both U.S. Senate races and five of eight U.S. House races. The Minnesota State House flipped to Democratic control.

Less than a year later, in October 2019, Haney López was in Alamance County, North Carolina, to see in person how the approach worked in the rural and small-town South.

In a field experiment developed by political scientists David Broockman at Berkeley and Joshua Kalla at Yale University (Kalla earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley), the campaign organizers set themselves a challenging goal: Even as the Klan marshaled nearby, they would go door-to-door and engage residents in “deep canvassing” conversations about health care for undocumented immigrants.

According to a July 2020 report from People’s Action, the results of its campaign in North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania were striking. It achieved a lasting 8% swing in support for expanding the health care safety net for undocumented immigrants. They also generated a 5% increase in agreement that immigrants should have access to food stamps.

“You see many Democrats saying we need to write off every jurisdiction that votes for Trump,” Haney López said. “But many people in rural America are saying, ‘This is not the America we want. We want an America where neighbors embrace and take care of each other, no matter what color we are.’ This is where the energy is.”

Change is possible — if progressive advocates are willing to change, too

This may be the most counterintuitive element in Haney López’s race-class strategy — and the most controversial: Conservatives may manipulate racial attitudes, but the most effective route to racial and economic justice requires a dramatic change on the left.

Typically, the answer to racism has been to call out racism and to organize against it. But that has had only limited success, he said, because it draws progressive leaders into the trap set by economic elites who are pushing racial division. If people feel compelled to choose racial sides, that dynamic has to be neutralized.

The race-class narrative requires a paradigm shift, he said. The broad progressive movement must reorient its strategies and communication to focus more on building a unified movement around a message stressing the fusion of economic and racial justice and the rejection of divisive tactics by the right.

It’s counterintuitive: To defeat racism, the left must change its approach, according to this video from the Race-Class Academy.

This, he said, is the only way to build a coalition big enough to win economic justice for working families. And, he insisted, it is simultaneously “the most promising route to creating the sorts of political majorities we need to actually end government violence against communities of color.”

The politics, however, are complex. For the past 50 years, Haney López said, advocates for racial justice have been asked to tone down their demands so that whites will not be alienated. On this point, he is adamant: “We should not be sacrificing racial justice concerns in order to pander to racist stereotypes.”

At the same time, whites have to buy into a core world view of the race-class narrative — that their own families are harmed by racism. That idea has to be embraced across the spectrum of progressive activism and its mostly white leadership — not just in the civil rights movement, but in campaigns focused on labor, the environment, women’s rights, health and poverty.

“Fighting racism against people of color is the prerequisite to everything else progressives want to achieve,” he said. “That’s the paradigm change.”