The most recent information from research conducted by the race-class narrative folks focuses on the Latino community—one where Donald Trump made noticeable inroads in 2020.
Compared to 2016, 31% more Hispanic Americans cast a ballot in the most recent presidential election, and Trump’s share of those votes went up an alarming 8%. In 2020, we saw an even more dramatic shift toward The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It when it comes to working-class (defined as those without a college degree) Hispanic voters—as well as among voters of color overall. It’s also worth noting that among working-class voters of color, more women (14%) than men (9%) switched to Trump in 2020. Bear in mind that two-thirds of all voters of color are working-class, including almost 80% of Latinos. Geographically speaking, the movement toward Fuck a l’Orange was especially strong in South Texas, where many self-identified “Tejanos” have lived for six or more generations, and don’t see their politics as centering on being Latino, or connected to immigrants per se. With the 2022 midterms just months away, and 2024 not far behind, Democratic campaigns simply must do better when appealing to these voters.
Michael Frias, head of Catalist, which has closely examined Latino voter data, puts it this way: “Is [the increased number of Latino voters] bad news, or is this good news for the Democratic Party? The reality is that’s not knowable right now. What we know is this is a fast-growing part of the electorate, and there’s opportunity here. The race [between parties] is really who’s going to invest the time, energy and attention to learn more about these voters, engage more of these voters, and really listen to them.”
It's no secret Democrats need to invest in as many voters as possible, every cycle, yet don't. But the situation is particularly dire with Latino voters: Since the election, Biden has continued to lose ground disproportionately with them. Polling done by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist in late July had him at 59% job approval, but that same pollster found that figure was down to 33%—a drop of 26 percentage points—in mid-December. By comparison, his average approval rating among all voters, as measured by FiveThirtyEight, was only down by a much smaller 11 points over that same period.
Think of the tight margins in states like Florida, Nevada, or Arizona, where Latinos in 2020 made up at least one-fifth of all eligible voters, or even Georgia—where Latinos constitute 5% of eligible voters—a state that couldn’t get any closer. Then there’s Texas, where the Latino share is over 30%, and which is growing more competitive at the statewide level, as evidenced by Beto O’Rourke almost beating Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. Given the continued growth in the Hispanic community, Democrats simply must do better than the 61% Biden won last time, which, while still a solid majority, represents a significant drop from the even larger margins won by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
UC Berkeley School of Law professor Ian Haney López is a primary architect—along with collaborators Heather McGhee, author of the best-selling 2021 book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, and Anat Shenker-Osorio—of what they call the “race-class approach” to politics. Their advocacy grew out of work that originated at the progressive think tank Demos, where McGhee served as president from 2014 to 2018.
López has continued to advocate for the adoption of this messaging by spearheading the Race-Class Academy, which provides materials to teach people “how together we can beat dog whistle politics by building cross-racial and cross-class solidarity.” Here’s the message at the center of it all:
Certain politicians exploit racist rhetoric to divide and distract, while they rig government and the economy for themselves and their big money donors. They get richer, we get poorer—and the power of government is turned against communities of color.
But we can fight back and win. Here’s the most powerful movement-building message today:
When we come together to reject racism as a weapon of the reactionary rich, we can make sure that the government works for all of us, of every race and color.
This terrific short video, produced by Race Class Narrative Action—co-founded by López, McGhee, and Shenker-Osorio—features progressives who have been successfully presenting this approach in communities, and offers a powerful exploration of the concept.
Michelle Martinez of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, synthesized the message beautifully: “The Race-Class narrative is about understanding the power structure behind racism and classism without denying the existence of either.” Vidhya Arawind of We The People Michigan explained: “The whole thing is multiracial working-class solidarity.” Supreme Moore Omokunde, a Milwaukee County supervisor, declared: “We can’t be afraid to … really see ourselves in other people that we are told we’re not supposed to see ourselves in and say, ‘Well, I want for them what I want for myself.’” Noah Reif of Citizen Action Wisconsin pointed out: “When we do that, we don’t just win this year … we set the groundwork for winning for all time.”
And Eli Day of We The People Michigan summed up the potential impact the Race-Class narrative can have, describing it as ”a really serious intervention that can not only win power but can also build the kind of power necessary to really meaningfully improve people’s lives.”
In his 2019 book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, as well as his most recent research, López has presented data demonstrating that the Race-Class message garnered more support among the three groups surveyed—Black, white, and Hispanic voters—than either of two Democratic alternatives: 1) a “Colorblind Left” message, which downplays racism and focuses overwhelmingly on economic issues, or 2) one that puts white racism front and center, which López calls the “Race Left.”
Here’s one iteration of the Colorblind Left message López employed in his surveys:
We had plenty of warning about COVID-19, but certain political leaders were unprepared to act in a crisis. They ignored the science, didn’t make plans, and even failed to tell the truth about simple steps people can take, like wearing a mask. Most families are facing record unemployment, big health risks, and uncertain futures. Meanwhile, a tiny handful of individuals and corporations are getting even richer. We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but COVID-19 illnesses and deaths are worse here than almost anywhere else. We must elect new leaders who have a plan and are ready to build this country back, better.
And, here is his Race Left message:
There’s been a horrible explosion of hate in this country. Certain politicians promote xenophobia, racism, and division. And it’s not just their words. It’s their policies, too. We see it in how they rip families apart at the border. And in how the police profile, imprison, and kill Black people, and use excessive force against people marching for justice. Right now, communities of color are suffering the greatest numbers of deaths from COVID-19, but have the least access to affordable, quality health care. To end the racism and reform immigration and policing, we must elect new leaders who truly believe that all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated that way.
Finally, this is an example of the Race-Class message López used:
We had come so far, but now COVID-19 threatens our families, for instance with health risks, record unemployment, and losing the businesses we worked hard to build. To overcome these challenges, we need to pull together no matter our race or ethnicity.
We have done this before and can do it again. But instead of uniting us, certain politicians make divisions worse, insulting and blaming different groups. When they divide us, they can more easily rig our government and the economy for their wealthy campaign donors. When we come together by rejecting racism against anyone, we can elect new leaders who support proven solutions that help all working families.
Some progressives are understandably suspicious of a message that does not center the dangers of white supremacy. López wants to be very clear about what he’s proposing, and allay those concerns. As he wrote in Merge Left: “Framing racism as a class weapon and as white-over-nonwhite hierarchy are complementary rather than competing ways to promote racial justice.” The professor continues:
The point of framing racism as a class weapon is not to permanently displace discussions about racial hierarchy … Instead, it’s to create added space for those exchanges as well as a greater inclination to participate. When more people see that cross-racial solidarity provides the best way forward for themselves and their families, they should be increasingly willing to engage in and sustain uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Educational work about racial hierarchy is hugely important to racial justice as well as to the project of building robust cross-racial solidarity. It’s just that starting with conversations about white dominance feels unwelcoming and overwhelming to many.
López further explained:
No Democratic resurgence is possible based on a game plan that expects racial justice movements to set aside their core concerns. But as an electoral strategy, leading with racial justice is clearly risky. The Right constantly warns that liberal government and the Democratic Party care more about people of color than about whites…To be clear, there’s no argument here that the Left should abandon communities of color to win over whites….The argument is not that progressives should jettison efforts to promote racial justice. The argument is that the current way of explaining racial justice as a goal makes it harder to get there, at least in the context of electoral politics.
When I interviewed him in 2019, López made clear that he’s aware of the impact racism has on American life: “Racism is the primary weapon wielded by the power elite in a class war they are winning. This describes what’s been happening in society since colonialism, but over the last half-century in particular.”
Most recently, the professor and his team dug deep into their survey data on Latino voters in the run-up to the 2020 election, providing valuable insight beyond simply who voted for whom. Although Black, white and Latino voters were all surveyed, he also examined how Latinos—who see themselves in various categories—responded to the Colorblind Left, Race Left, his own Race-Class, as well as Republican Dog Whistle messaging, such as this:
Our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe and ensuring that hard working Americans have the freedom to prosper. Leaders who built a strong economy once can do it again after COVID-19. Taking a second look at China, or illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs, is just common sense. And so is fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws. We need to make sure we take care of our own people first, especially the people who politicians have cast aside for too long to cater to whatever special interest groups yell the loudest or riot in the street.
The Dog Whistle message, perhaps surprisingly to progressives, scored quite well overall with Black and Hispanic respondents, as well as with white voters. A majority among all three groups found this message convincing—with white and Black respondents coming in at the same level of support, and Hispanic support registering slightly higher. The Race Left message not only got less support than the Dog Whistle one from white respondents overall, it also did worse among voters Prof. López identifies as persuadable voters—those who are not down the line partisans—in every racial category. Furthermore, the Race Left approach did worse among Black and Latino respondents than not only the Race-Class message, but even the Colorblind Left one. Notably, this was during the summer of 2020, at the height of support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.
How could this be possible? López argues that it’s about identity.
To the question of who you are in this society, the Race Left’s condemnations of Republican racism effectively say that you’re a bigot—at least, that’s what you are if you’re worried about illegal immigration, drugs and criminal gangs, and supporting the police. Yet that’s the majority of Americans, white, Black, and brown, who feel such fears are reasonable.
On a deeper level, condemnations of widespread white racism communicate to white voters you’re part of the problem, part of the group that originated, perpetuated, and still benefits from injustice. Racially progressive white voters are willing to see themselves that way. But the vast majority recoil.
Although it may be frustrating for many to learn, the professor’s research also found that the Race Left message fails to appeal to many voters of color, outside of the most progressive, activist sectors. He specifically cited Latinos, many of whom expressed strong opposition to a stark anti-racist message—because it did not fit with how they saw themselves, and how they envisioned their future in America. Many of these Latinos characterized themselves as “patriots” and “hard-working Americans,” and—adopting some of the most hateful language of the right—identified “welfare queens,” “criminals,” and “illegal aliens” as presenting the primary threats to their well-being.
These are not voters who will respond to a campaign message that argues widespread racism is the primary problem America faces.
The research also indicates that the way Hispanic Americans understood their position in the country’s racial hierarchy had a greater effect on which party they voted for than any other factor, including country of origin, gender, age, or where they currently lived.
In his Project Juntos: Latinx Race-Class report, López drilled down into the different concepts of Latino identity, and how they affected receptiveness to the various political messages presented to respondents. In summary, he found that “the standard Democratic messages don’t work.”
In order to understand this fully, “the key factor is how Hispanics think about race.” In his research, the professor found that Latino Americans divide themselves into three identity-based categories:
People of color: 25% see Hispanics as a group that, like Black Americans, remains distinct over generations. Individuals in this group are more likely to be younger, U.S.-born, members of the progressive base, and to prefer “Latinx” (even so, within this group “Hispanic” remains the overwhelming favorite, 65% to 6%). They are also more likely to say that they are perceived as ”White or Caucasian” by people who do not know them, though this cohort also includes most Afro-Latinos.
White ethnics: 32% view Hispanics as a group that, like European Americans, over generations becomes part of the American mainstream. Those in this group are more likely to be older, immigrants, and bilingual. Compared to those who see Latinx as people of color, this cohort is almost three times as likely to believe that “people of color who cannot get ahead are mostly responsible for their own situations” (38% versus 14%).
Bootstrappers: 28% perceive Hispanics not primarily as people of color or as white ethnics, but as a group that “over generations can get ahead through hard work.” Compared to white ethnics, they tend slightly more conservative regarding race, class, and government, and are the most likely to be Republican. They are also the group least likely to say that they are perceived as white by others.
The surveys found that the Latinos who identified as People of Color held views more in line with what you’d expect from progressives than those who expressed one of the other two identities (despite their different conceptions of their identity, their survey responses were largely similar, and you can see the right-wing talking points reflected even in the above excerpts). The White Ethnics/Bootstrappers responded slightly more positively to the right-wing Dog Whistle message—but even 59% of the People of Color group expressed support. Regarding all three Democratic messages, the White Ethnics and Bootstrappers were less supportive than the People of Color. Furthermore, only the Race-Class message produced a net positive response among the White Ethnics and Bootstrappers. Likewise, that message was also the most popular across the board.
Interestingly, the responses to all the Democratic messages offered by the White Ethnics and Bootstrappers were identical to those of persuadable voters across all groups, other than on the Race Left/Call Out Racism message—which they liked even less than did the persuadable voters—as you can see below.
Echoing López’s data on Latino identity, here’s Sergio Garcia-Rios, a Cornell University professor of government and Latino Studies who is also the polling director for Univision: “The idea of unidad–Latin unity—not all Latinos buy into that. People have multiple identities... (And) we're starting to see a lot more later-generation Latinos, who are just farther away from an immigrant's arrival.”
There’s likely not a lot of support among Daily Kos readers for the Colorblind Left approach, which is both strategically suspect and just plain cowardly. It won't work because it doesn't counter the Republicans’ racially divisive message, and because it alienates many voters of color who need to know that white Democrats, all Democrats, know the importance of fighting racial injustice. Joe Biden, far from a man of the left, spoke passionately about racism and white supremacy throughout his 2020 campaign, making clear that no Democratic presidential nominee can ever ignore those issues again. They are simply too central to the party’s core values.
Democrats must actively combat the Republican lie that only they care about white people—which paints not only people of color but white liberals as the enemy. We saw this most recently on Jan. 15, when the twice-impeached former president issued a whopper of a statement, echoing a racist hoax earlier spewed by white nationalist Tucker Carlson, specifically aimed at provoking white resentment.
The reality is that Democrats care about all Americans, of every race. The key, as the professor explained, is to make sure Democratic rhetoric “shift(s) the threat. The danger [to whites] does not come from people of color; it comes from powerful elites pushing division.”
Nevertheless, only after Democrats have nullified the other side’s lie—by demonstrating that their rhetoric aims to divide people by race who share common interests—can candidates have success pivoting to a message that highlights Democratic values, policies, and achievements. Only then can they effectively argue that middle- and working-class people of all races need to unify against the real enemy—entrenched wealth and the Republican politicians who want to keep that wealth in the smallest number of hands possible.
It is important for those who long to see all Democratic campaigns center racial justice and sound like the most progressive racial justice activists to take into account what López’s research has found. Other studies, while not exact parallels, have found similar results in terms of what kinds of messaging work best.
It’s important to note that—even though 92% of all registered voters identify as either Black, Latino, or white—we need more research on how various messages play with Asian American voters, whose numbers are growing faster than any other ethnic group.
Like Latinos, AAPI voters as a whole—whose turnout nearly doubled from 2016 to 2020—lean towards Team Blue, but they are far from a monolithic group. The level of support for Democrats varies widely, and country of origin plays a major role. For example, Americans of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese ancestry are noticeably more Democratic than the average Asian American voter, while Filipino and Vietnamese Americans are less so. Overall, however, AAPI voters also to some degree mirrored Hispanic voters in trending away from Democrats from 2016, when Sec. Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 38% (65% to 27%), to 2020, when President Biden won them by 32% (63% to 31%). By contrast, Biden improved on Clinton’s total popular vote margin by 2.2%. Given the increased turnout, Biden earned a greater margin in terms of the total number of votes coming from the Asian American community than did Clinton. However, if the gap continues to close in percentage terms, that’s a problem for Democrats and the people who benefit from their policies—i.e., just about all Americans.
In the end, López acknowledges that his data offers a “hard truth” to some racial justice activists—a group whose commitment to racial equity he shares. That hard truth? Political messaging built around attacking white racism will “backfire.” It risks turning off persuadable Black, white, and Latino voters, thus losing otherwise winnable elections and making it that much harder to gain power and enact the structural changes necessary to achieve comprehensive racial equality and justice.
Democratic campaigns have the greatest success—even with Black and brown voters—when their rhetoric specifically targets racist Republican politicians who, in the service of the economic elite, use racial dog whistles to get middle and lower-income whites to focus on hyped-up racial grievance rather than the reality that right-wing policies harm their material interests.
This is, in fact, the approach taken by none other than two-time presidential election winner President Barack Obama. Repeatedly, and most notably in his 2008 Philadelphia “race” speech, the country’s first and only Black president both called out the reality of the harm racism continues to cause Black Americans, and condemned right-wing politicians as well as media figures who exploited and fed white racial resentment because it “distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze—a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”
Remember: Electoral campaigns and racial justice activists have different roles to play, and different audiences to reach, which means they must speak in different ways. General election campaigns must focus on defeating Republican opponents at the ballot box. Their purpose cannot be to change people’s basic views on matters of racism—nor is there any evidence that they are able to do so. Activists, on the other hand, can and do put pressure on elected officials after they’ve won, and do the work of raising consciousness more broadly.
Going forward, what matters most here is that the Race-Class fusion message wins more support across racial lines than the Dog Whistle, Colorblind Left, or Race Left messages among all racial groups surveyed. It is, as López concluded, “the most persuasive political message available today, right or left.”
For even more discussion about Race-Class fusion messaging, check out this week’s episode of The Brief; Ian Haney López is Markos and Kerry’s special guest, discussing his research.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)