What follows in the remaining pages is a set of general suggestions about how to fight back, but two things are clear at the outset. First, if 50 years of dog whistling teach anything, it’s that ignoring it in the hope it will go away doesn’t work.17 Second, we know that progress in the labor movement must come by building from the inside out, addressing race-class connections internally as a basis for larger organizing. This will require sustained introspection and significant reforms. At the same time, unions cannot wait to complete such efforts before taking up externally focused organizing, educational and political work.
Asking the Race Questions
Unions should start by asking themselves probing questions about race (and gender) along the following lines:
- Integration—What is the racial composition of the local work force? Of the unions and of union leadership? What is being done to track these numbers and to foster integration?
- Separation—Are there local job sectors in which whites predominate, or that are largely occupied by people of color? In what sectors are unions more prevalent? What different issues do white and nonwhite workers tend to face, and what are the common concerns? What can unions do to make workers see the shared interests among whites and nonwhites as well as between union and nonunion working families?
- Discrimination—What is the history of discrimination within a job sector? Within unions? Do the effects of this discrimination continue? Does the discrimination itself continue? How is this affecting nonwhite lives? Does it create relatively privileged groups who might be susceptible to divide-and-conquer politics?
- Dog Whistling—Are coded racial appeals common in local politics? Are local unions targeted as havens for minorities or as big government special interests? Is there an effort to use race to win support from union members? How are union members voting, and what’s the connection to racial appeals?
- Attitudes—How do union members see each other across the color line? Is routine racism prevalent among union members? How many union members view whites as hardworking and responsible, and minorities as lazy and dangerous? How many believe that government and maybe unions themselves favor people of color over whites? Do nonwhite union members trust their white counterparts to do the right thing around racial issues?
Convincing Whites to Fight Racism
Turning now to general strategies, a key step is to convince whites to fight racism. This requires acknowledging that it’s often difficult to bring whites into the racial struggle. Partly, this is because few whites believe that race matters to them personally. Only 1 in 10 young whites report often feeling excluded at school or work because of race, or report being treated differently by an employer on the basis of race.18
More dangerously, many whites uncritically accept rightwing racial frames. For instance, most believe society should be colorblind. In a recent poll of young whites— those widely considered more comfortable with race than their elders—three out of four agree “society would be better if it were truly colorblind and never considered race or ethnicity.” Relatedly, most are skeptical that racism really harms people of color. More than three in five believe “racial minorities use racism as an excuse more than they should.” In addition, to the extent that whites feel threatened by race, it is as victims of what they see as anti-white racism, for example the “reverse discrimination” of affirmative action programs. Today, half of young whites believe “discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against racial minority groups.”19
Given these views, to enlist whites it often may be counterproductive to exclusively emphasize racial prejudice against people of color. Having internalized the right-wing messages that it’s wrong to talk about race, that racism against minorities is largely past, and that society cares more about minorities than it does about them, the exclusive use of a racial prejudice frame runs the risk of playing into the right’s narrative.
It is imperative to broaden racial conversations to show whites how their lives are degraded by racial politics, not just morally, but economically. The noxious economic inequality that makes providing for a family so challenging is directly connected to political exploitations of racism. To enlist many whites in the battle against racism requires demonstrating to whites that by voting according to dog whistle appeals, they’re wrecking their own lives—their work conditions and wages, their pensions, their health care, the education and future of their children. Conversations about race must sometimes stress how whites lose when racism wins.
Convincing People of Color to Connect Race to Class
Those focused foremost on the very real harms suffered disproportionately by black, brown, red and yellow communities in the United States may bristle at the suggestion that conversations about racism should emphasize harms to whites. At the very moment when energy is gathering behind the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” this may seem an effort to steal attention by proclaiming “all lives matter.” Thus it’s critical to emphasize that racial justice is in no way being shoved to the back burner. On the contrary, a racial politics approach can advance racial justice more than can a racial prejudice frame.
The dog whistle lens helps bring into focus the political roots of some of today’s worst racial injustices. Reconsider police violence against minorities. When Richard Nixon threw himself into dog whistling, the number of people in state and federal prisons serving a year or more behind bars stood at around 200,000; today we have more than 2,300,000 persons in prison cells.20 Republicans started the drum beat about blacks as marauding criminals and whites as innocent victims; Democrats soon picked up the same themes, and then both parties were boosting aggressive policing, building prisons and filling them. Politicians, not the police, created a climate in which massive violence against nonwhites became the norm. This same story can be told in many areas, from disinvestment in urban areas and schools, to mass deportation campaigns.
Many of the largest calamities that have beaten down nonwhites over the last 50 years didn’t just happen; they were instead collateral fallout from dog whistle politics.
In addition, emphasizing how racism hurts whites is an important racial justice strategy in its own right. Pragmatically, whites hold most of the power in society, which means that fundamental racial change is much more likely when substantial numbers of whites support it.
On the negative side, the power held by whites means that if most of them mobilize to oppose racial reform, little real change will occur, and some things may get worse. This is the story of dog whistling. The very success of the civil rights movement created an opening for reactionary politicians to step in and harness white fears, not only curbing the civil rights movement, but also undoing significant achievements in progressive governance.
On the positive side, the political power of whites argues for affirmatively enlisting whites in racial justice campaigns. Derrick Bell, the first African American professor at Harvard Law School and one of the most astute voices on race in the post-civil rights era, labeled this basic truth “interest convergence.” As Bell recognized, in any campaign for racial justice, there are many whites who will join the fight because it’s morally right. But inevitably, “the number who would act on morality alone is insufficient to bring about the desired racial reform.”21 Instead, powerful blocs of whites must come to see the demands for racial justice as aligned with their own interests. Those concerned foremost with the fate of minorities should embrace desegregating the race conversation by showing whites how racism hurts them, too. Genuine progress on race will come most rapdily when large numbers of whites feel they have a direct stake in challenging racism.
Despite the stress on practical interests above, it’s also clear that this emphasis can be carried too far. Indeed, focusing almost exclusively on economic issues is perhaps the key mistake progressives have made in confronting culture war politics.
As early as 1970, Democratic leaders saw that race and other wedge issues could be successfully used to divide their supporters. At that point, liberals made a fateful decision: pull back from race and other controversial social positions, and instead emphasize pocketbook concerns. The calculus seemed simple and straightforward: since people seemed motivated mostly by their bottom line, stress economic over social matters. Or, put another way, if the key was “self-interest,” liberals put all the emphasis on “interest” and largely neglected the “self.”
Conservatives did the opposite. While they offered phrases like “trickle-down economics” and “job creators” to pretend that voting Republican made financial sense for the working class, more than anything else, the right stressed threats to the self, to people’s sense of position in society. What it meant to be white in America—as well as what it meant to be a husband or a wife, a Christian, an American—all of these were under siege, the right insisted, from insurgent minorities, organized labor and their big government allies. Dog whistle politics is fundamentally a manipulation of anxiety about eroding social status.
To respond successfully to this strategy, in addition to laying bare the economic consequences of racial politics, labor also must strive to give people a new, positive sense of themselves.
Beyond emphasizing wages and work conditions, the labor movement should work to build pride in an inclusive identity resistant to divide-and-conquer tactics—an identity of people for each other, not fearful of each other.
Key components of this new identity should include staples like pride in the country and pride in hard work, whether in the trades, at home, in government service or in the private sector. But most importantly, an inclusive identity should be built around belonging, mutual respect, and mutual care: belonging, the grounded sense that we all are members of this society in equal standing; mutual respect, seeing the basic humanity and dignity of others, even when we’re different; and mutual care, the pride and security that comes from taking care of each other, offering help when we can and accepting help when we need it, confident we’ll be able to return the favor soon.
The overwhelming majority of Americans understand that we owe each other a basic duty of care.22 The power elites have skewed this, however, by stoking fear and anxiety, causing people to severely constrict their circles of concern. Thus it is not enough to talk only about pragmatic interests. To defeat decades of resentment-based politics requires fostering pride in a renewed conception of what it means to be American. Only in seeing ourselves in others—without regard to race or other social prejudices—do we gain the power to create a society where all can flourish. This has to be one of the core lessons that labor seeks to teach.
Building a Movement
The need to lift up a new sense of belonging implies the need for unions to participate in something bigger than labor actions. Unions should see themselves as key drivers of a new social movement with roots in the workplace that aims to give all Americans a reinvigorated and inclusive sense of shared purpose.
The energy for mass mobilization is there, evident in the last few years in the popular campaigns supporting everything from immigrant rights, Barack Obama’s initial election, marriage equality, and a living wage, as well as in the Occupy Movement, the outrage in Ferguson and Baltimore, and in Black Lives Matter. Indeed, even the passions animating the Tea Party show that people sense things are going off the rails and that it’s time to put things straight again.
How can we convert this energy into a broad movement for progressive social change? Social movements require, at root, three things: narratives, networks and resources.
Narratives refer to frames or stories that help people comprehend the world, explaining why current crises reflect injustices rather than accidents. If people perceive hardships as “accidents,” they typically respond as if there’s nothing to be done. But an “injustice” can be fixed, and indeed demands corrective action. Unions are in a strong position to craft these narratives, educating their members and the broader public about how the plutocrats have been manipulating us through the politics of resentment while they seize ever more power and wealth. We need a clear, simple message that we should care for each other, and that government and the market can and should serve everyone and not just the very richest.
Networks are important for disseminating ideas within and between groups, and for supporting people in the decision to stand up. Narratives of injustice are useless unless broadly shared, at which point they can help solidify a sense of unifying purpose among groups working on different fronts. The labor movement has the capacity to make these links, building connections to groups working on everything from housing, the environment, and campaign finance reform, to mass incarceration, immigration, and public health. Moreover, networks are important in getting people off the couch.
Isolated in their misery or fearful of others, individuals stay home.23 But connected to others, indeed, fighting for others, people take to the streets.
Resources include the financial wherewithal to fund the movement, of course, but at least as important, they encompass the myriad skills required to shape messages, disseminate ideas and organize people. Here again, unions are better positioned than most others to take the lead.
It is not just the need for a renewed sense of solidarity that makes a broad social movement necessary. In addition, contemporary electoral realities necessitate a grassroots response. Big money has largely captured both political parties, a trend that has exploded since the Citizens United decision. The Koch brothers alone have committed to spending nearly $900 million in the 2016 election cycle—on par with the spending of the two major parties in the last presidential election.24 With politics awash in this kind of money, the only possible response is popular mobilization. The only counterweight to the power of money is the power of people.
The most important single goal unifying any new movement should be this: to demand that government serves people rather than money power.
Government sets the basic rules of our society, and today those rules keep the incomes of the majority of us down while concentrating more and more wealth in the grip of the very richest.
To have the power to take government back from these economic titans, a movement must first build power in workplaces and in communities. We cannot seek the blessings of the state before acting. Where, as now, politicians largely serve the interests of the power elites—or whites continue to control government with little regard for people of color, as in Ferguson—we must often mobilize against government.
Even as we do so, though, we must remember that “government” is not coterminous with venal politicians, however much damage they may do. At its base, government is composed of people who have dedicated their lives to public service, whether as teachers or safety workers, judges or office clerks, inspectors or social welfare case workers, and many of these folks are union members. We must avoid the dog whistle rhetoric that trashes government, including many of our brothers and sisters.
In protesting government, the point is not to reject it—this is what the right wants working people to do—but instead to reclaim it and demand that it fulfill its mission of pursuing the good of all.
The labor movement’s history illustrates this. Mass movements in the workplace originally faced government repression in the form of police clubs and militia guns. But these movements eventually generated political as well as economic power. Lasting gains in the workplace only finally occurred when the labor movement built sufficient political support to secure state and federal laws that protected workers in their right to organize and bargain. In contrast, after Taft-Hartley, Reagan, and the accelerating proliferation of “right to work” laws, government increasingly has made collective action among laborers more and more precarious, contributing directly to the withering of unions and the savaging of the working class. We must protest this shift, not with an eye toward doing away with government, but with the aim of wresting government out of the grip of big money and bringing it back onto the side of workers.
Short Term/Long Term
The right has been using dog whistle politics to stampede voters and demonize government for 50 years. This may seem like a long time, but in reality this is only the latest maneuver in the perpetual campaign by privileged classes to amass ever more lucre
In the face of constant efforts by the rich and powerful to grab more and more, the struggle of human societies is always to push prosperity downward and outward. This is, by necessity, an enduring fight.
Of course we must act in the present and accomplish today what we can. But it is a huge mistake to act exclusively with short-time horizons. In particular, election cycles should not set the limits of union strategizing. Just as Goldwater pioneered dog whistle politics and lost, only to see Nixon win big with the same approach eight years later, progressives must look further down the road than the next election. Movements are made through groundwork, which can only be laid between elections rather than in the midst of heated campaign seasons.
Plutocrats have largely hijacked the marketplace and government, winning support by convincing many to fear their neighbors while ignoring toxic social and economic inequality. We need to act immediately to combat this, understanding that it will require a long-term effort to build a renewed sense of belonging and mutual care in America.
- 17. Social science teaches the same lesson. Tali Mendelberg, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality (2001).
- 18. David Binder Research, “MTV Bias Survey II Final Results,” April 2014.
- 19. Ibid.
- 20. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
- 21. Derrick Bell, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” 93 Harvard Law Review 518, 525 (1980).
- 22. Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality (2009).
- 23. Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies, June 2007.
- 24. Nicholas Confessore, “Koch Brothers’ Budget of $889 Million for 2016 Is on Par With Both Parties’ Spending,” The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2015.