Unions must mobilize to defeat racism because it destroys solidarity and brutalizes union members, because the demographics of working people are changing rapidly, and because morality demands action. But mobilizing all of labor to join the fight against racism will not be easy: race fractures the labor movement itself. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said of Ferguson, Missouri, “our brother killed our sister’s son,” and in doing so, he spoke to the tragic facts, and also to the internecine racial fault lines that shatter worker solidarity.
For unions to recover, they must both fight the injustices done to people of color and simultaneously emphasize the common interests that all workers share. César Chávez knew this when he built a farmworker coalition across race lines, uniting Filipinos and Mexicans in California’s fields. Martin Luther King Jr. embodied this in joining the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis and in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. Seeking to build a bridge between labor and the civil rights movement, King said to the AFL-CIO in 1961, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
A shared commitment to challenging racial and economic injustice depends on everyone recognizing that racism is more than prejudice by one individual against another. It has been, and remains, a way to structure society, the economy, and government. Consider slavery—the Southern way of life was built to rationalize this barbarism, the economy depended on it, and government was designed to protect it. Though not to the same extent today, racism nevertheless continues to play this structuring role.
This is most evident in our politics, especially when viewed from the perspective of the last half-century. Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement transformed the place of African Americans and other nonwhites in society, ending formal segregation laws as well as racist restrictions on immigration. In turn, however, these changes contributed to rising anxiety among some made nervous by racial change, and politicians quickly sought to harness and then to foment this seething sense of insecurity
The Republican Party in particular, though eventually many Democrats too, began to campaign by scaring voters. They did so by dog whistling: using coded terms like “inner city crime” and “silent majority” that on the surface did not mention race, but that just underneath coursed with racial power, telling a story of decent whites under threat from dangerous minorities. Today, nobody better symbolizes this toxic politics than Donald Trump.
Yet for all its ugliness, this was strategy, not bigotry. Keeping minorities in their place was never the main point. Instead, the goal was to win elections, and also to satisfy the demands of the billionaires funding political campaigns. This required stoking resentment not only against nonwhites but also against activist government, which was painted as coddling minorities with welfare while refusing to control them through lax criminal laws and weak border enforcement. In effect, powerful elites used the politics of fear and division to hijack government for their own benefit. Pandering to racial anxiety and enflaming hatred against government, they distracted voters from recognizing the threat posed by increasing concentrations of wealth and power.
Today, the richest 0.1% of Americans holds 22% of the country’s wealth—the same share held by the bottom 90% of the population.1 These are levels of wealth inequality not seen in a century. As we slowly emerge from the Great Recession, we find ourselves confronting levels of poverty and economic hardship we thought we had left long in the past, with pensions gone, home equity erased, jobs scarce and little promise for our children. Once again, robber barons rule a rigged system, with government and the marketplace in their pockets. In their greed, they are stifling shared economic prosperity, limiting the mobility of current and future generations, and endangering our democracy.
Purpose This framing paper explains and offers a response to the gravest threat facing the labor movement and indeed our democracy: the power of wealthy elites to use racial scapegoating to turn working people against each other and against good government, allowing them to seize ever more wealth and power while hollowing out the working class.
Audiences This paper simultaneously speaks to two audiences that typically perceive little common ground, or worse, see themselves at odds: those concerned foremost with racial injustice, and those focused first on class inequality. The message for both is the same: progress requires recognizing how race and class intersect.
Goals This framing paper provides:
- A deeper understanding of the violence inflicted on minority communities. From murderous policing to mass incarceration to slashed spending on schools and urban neighborhoods, racial politics more than racial prejudice explains the devastation of barrios and ghettoes. The truth is, politicians and their big money pals play a much bigger role in perpetuating racism than individuals do.
- A basis for worker solidarity. Dog whistle politics makes clear that white workers have a direct stake in combating racism, because stoking racial fear is the sorcery the right uses to win broad support for policies that wreck the working class. Defeating racism’s power to divide us becomes everyone’s agenda, not only a minority concern.
- A way past the race vs. class debate. Some activists insist the most important issue is racism, others that it’s all about class. They’re both correct, because race and class are inseparably intertwined. When politicians use racial dog whistles to defeat working-class solidarity, they demonstrate the fundamental connection between race and class.
- A broader goal for labor. The whole country has lost tremendous ground to divide-and-conquer politics, and now the only way forward is a new social movement demanding that government put people and not corporations first. Labor can best spearhead this new movement that will be years in the making.
The Risk—and Reward— of Talking About Racism
Dog whistle politicians constantly warn that liberal government and unions care more about appeasing minorities than about protecting hardworking whites. This drumbeat makes it risky for labor to mobilize around nonwhite concerns, because it can make conservative accusations ring true to many white workers.
But the solution cannot be to avoid race and to exclusively address class interests. To talk solely about economics leaves racial demagoguery unchallenged, allowing it to continue dividing workers. It also leaves workers of color alienated and angry that the labor movement is ignoring the gross injustices they confront.
The only way forward is to connect race to class, and class to race—by building an inclusive social movement that silences dog whistle politics and demands that government put people first.
- 1. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data,” NBER Working Paper, October 2014. 1