Who Belongs? EP 20 - Ian Haney López on Bernie Sanders & the Race-Class Message

Interview

Monday, March 9, 2020

Click to download an MP3 of this interview.

In this episode of Who Belongs? we speak with Ian Haney Lopez, a professor of law here at UC Berkeley, about his new book: Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. The book puts forward the argument that the left can re-frame racism as a weapon of the rich by crafting messages that fuse race and class and build a cross-racial movement needed to beat powerful fear-based messaging and racial dog whistles. He gives us his take on the messages he hears coming out of the 2020 Democratic primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and what he thinks Bernie needs to do to strengthen his appeal for a multi-racial movement.

For more information about Merge Left visit: https://www.ianhaneylopez.com/merge-left/

For a video presentation about this book visit: https://belonging.berkeley.edu/video-merge-left

Interview Transcript:

Ian Haney López: There's really good reason for Sanders to really push the idea, that race and class are completely intertwined in America and that we will solve the challenges of economic inequality and racial injustice simultaneously, and that is the only way we will solve those problems.

Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs, a podcast from the Othering & Belonging Institute here at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts of this show. In this episode we speak with Ian Haney Lopez, a professor of law here at UC Berkeley about his new book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America.

Marc Abizeid: The book puts forward the argument that the left can reframe racism as a weapon of the rich by crafting messages that fuse race and class, and build a cross racial movement needed to beat powerful, fear-based messaging, racial dog whistles. He also gives us his take on the messages he hears coming out of the 2020 Democratic primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and what he thinks Bernie needs to do to strengthen his appeal for a multiracial movement. Here was our conversation.

Marc Abizeid: Well first of all Ian, thank you so much for coming on our show to talk about your new book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. To start off, the book is based on new research and focus groups conducted in different parts of the country with different demographic groups to test out different messaging types, political messaging, to figure out what resonates with people. I'm just going to list a couple of these messaging types, and then maybe you can expand on them and talk a little bit about that research.

Marc Abizeid: You tested an economic justice message, a racial justice message, a racially coded, fear-based messaging, which is the one that's most popular with the right. Then finally a race hyphen class messaging frame and ultimately determine that it's this last type of messaging, the race class messaging frame that beats out all the others. Can you start off by explaining what exactly is a race class message, how you distinguish it from the others and why you think this discovery is so important?

Ian Haney López: Well, I think the first thing to start with is, the problem that we're trying to solve here. The problem we're trying to solve is that, the Republican party, the right generally, and to a certain extent the Democrats themselves have adopted a tactic of winning support from racially anxious voters. Mainly white, though not exclusively white, but racially anxious voters through narratives that are designed to trigger racial fear and resentment. That are also coded sufficiently to allow the politicians to deny that, that's what they're doing, and we call this dog whistle politics.

Ian Haney López: They're intentionally using frames, messages, imagery that trigger racist, fears and stereotypes, but they're coded sufficiently to allow them to deny that, that's what they're doing. That's been going on for 50 years. The Democrats haven't figured out a good way to respond, or I should say, progressives more generally since the Democrats started imitating that technique. The real question is, what's the best way for all the rest of us to get together and to beat this system of politicians winning power by intentionally stoking racial, fear and division? That's the problem we're trying to solve for.

Ian Haney López: It's important to understand, it's a problem that's more than half a century old, but that is particularly acute in the context of Donald Trump's election and in the context of the looming 2020 election. If that's the problem, then the way to figure it out is to compare different sorts of responses. I worked with a communication specialist, Anat Shenker-Osorio with the head of think tank, Heather McGhee of Demos and Demos Action. Together we brought in some amazing Democratic pollsters, Celinda Lake and Cornell Belcher. We also had support from SCIU, and we ran a two year research campaign.

Ian Haney López: In that campaign what we did is, we tested the standard Democratic responses, we tested the right wings racial fear message, and then we tested this alternative, this race class message. To run through those more slowly, the standard Republican racial fear message says something like this, "We need to worry about illegal aliens flooding into our country. We need to worry about sanctuary cities. We need to worry about people from terrorist countries who mean us harm. We need instead to take care of our own." Is that sort of using language that triggers these racist stereotypes, but that is sufficiently coded? It doesn't directly mention color. It doesn't use a racial epithet. It allows people promoting the message to pretend that they're not trading on racial fear at all.

Ian Haney López: First thing we found out that was a real surprise to us was, this message was incredibly powerful. It's not just convincing to the majority of Republican voters, it's convincing to a majority of democratic voters, a majority of union households, and also a majority of African Americans and Latinos. The code allows people to say to themselves, "Of course, it's common sense that we would worry about terrorists or illegals, nothing racist there. We're just trying to protect our country and our families." That sort of reasoning also applies again to majority of Latinos, African Americans, union households and Democrats. It becomes all the more important to figure out a way to beat it.

Ian Haney López: Here are the standard Democratic responses. One response is, to simply denounce that approach as racism. To call it out as bigotry, and then to turnaround and say, "What we really need to do as a country, is promote racial justice for communities of color." This turned out to be the most poorly performing message of all those that we tested, and you can understand why. Essentially what this message does is, it accepts and deepens the right wing frame. The right wing frame is, we are a country divided between racial groups locked into conflict. When the left responds by saying, "And that's right, because half of you all are bigots and what we really need to do is help people of color," it actually deepens the frame. You can see how this alienates whites.

Ian Haney López: What was a big surprise to us was that, it also alienated many people in black and brown communities. They also felt like a message that said to them, "The problem you're facing is a racist president, beloved by millions of racist Americans backed by 300 years of racist American history," was just so overwhelming. That many people retreated away from political activity, and towards a frame in which they were mainly concerned with just taking care of themselves, just making it through the day. That's one approach.

Ian Haney López: Now, Democrats have long understood that calling out the rights coded racism as racism doesn't work. There's a centrist Democratic response that's also been adopted, I should say by economic radicals, and that is to try and avoid race as much as possible. This is a colorblind economic approach. The idea is, that Democrats or progressives can win by stressing an issue that is relevant to all groups, healthcare, minimum wage, support for unions. That these economic issues can be relevant to all groups, and then to turn around and simultaneously to avoid any direct mention of race.

Ian Haney López: To be really clear, this economic only approach is a racial strategy. It's a strategy of avoiding race so as not to antagonize or to alienate white voters. We tested the strength of this colorblind economic approach, and what we found is, that it is more or less, slightly less convincing than the right's racial fear message. In other words, if Democrats run on a message that stresses economics only and that significantly ignores or downplays attention to racial justice, they'll do okay in jurisdictions in which Democrats predominate. In other jurisdictions, they're going to lose and in particular, there's no way to regain the Senate with this sort of approach. There's no way to build a wave election, a wave movement, the sort of wave that Democrats need to actually change the country's direction.

Ian Haney López: Then we tested a race hyphen class, a race class message. The intuition behind the race class message is, tell the story of what's actually happening to us. That it's not racism as bigotry that besets us. It's racism as an intentional divide and conquer tactic that threatens all of us. It threatens black and brown people, because it ends up demonizing us and justifying state violence against us, mass incarceration and mass deportation. It also threatens white families, because to the extent that we're pitted against each other, fearing each other on the basis of color or religion or national origin, what we're not focused on is who's actually running the system. The billionaires, the 1% who are pushing us to fear and fight each other, while they rig the system for their own benefit.

Ian Haney López: The race class approach tells that story, and it's a message that starts by surfacing race expressly, but in a positive context of shared values and shared concerns. It says something like, "We all want to take care of our children, no matter where we come from or what we look like." It then pivots and names the real enemy. It says something like, "But the rich are busy handing tax cuts to the 1% into the largest corporations, and then they turn around and encourage us to point their finger at others. At immigrants, or African Americans, or at Muslims, trying to scapegoat us so that we won't see the way in which they've got their hands deep in our pockets."

Ian Haney López: Then finally the race class approach calls for a coming together. This is the positive turn in the message that's so important. Race class message says, "When we reject racial division and build connections across race lines, that's when we can build a multiracial movement that will actually take care of all our families, whether we're white, black, or brown from down the road or across the world." That sort of message ends on a very positive, very race explicit note that says, "Reject racial division, build cross racial solidarity." That's the route to the sort of political power that will allow us to make sure that government works for working families rather than for the very rich.

Marc Abizeid: Okay, let me play an example. This is an example I took from your book. You have a quote here from Bernie Sanders in an interview with CNN from 2016. This is what he said and this is the quote you have in the book.

Bernie Sanders: I think what's on Erin is, there's a lot of anger in this country. For your average guy, he is asking why he has to work longer hours for low wages. He's really worried, or she is really worried, his mother's really worried about the future of their children and yet almost lower income and wealth is going to the top 1%, people are angry. What Trump is doing is taking that anger and saying, "It's the fault of the Mexicans or it's the fault of the Muslims, and we've got to scapegoat people." Well, beating up on Mexicans who make eight bucks an hour is not going to deal with the real issues facing this country.

Erin Burnett: Are you though blaming rich people for it in the same way?

Bernie Sanders: No, it's not rich people, no. We are blaming an economic system right now where factually almost lower income and wealth is going to the top 1%.

Marc Abizeid: Okay, now in the book, when I read this quote and to me it sounded like a race class message because it does surface race when it talks about Mexicans. It also talks about class. It talks about the kind of scapegoat frame, but the scapegoat frame, which you argue in the book is just another form of the economic justice message. It doesn't meet the criteria for the race class message. Can you tell us what you think about that message, what its limitations are and how what you heard can be turned into a race class message?

Ian Haney López: What's important to recognize is that, though we're here talking about messages, what we're really grappling with is an underlying analysis of what has happened to us as a country. Where we are now, what sort of threat we face and what we have to do to move forward. This is much more than a narrative, much more than message. Indeed, I would put it this way. I framed the book in terms of winning political messages, because that's what gets people's attention today. At the end of the day, what we're really grappling with is, where we are in American history in terms of race and class and democracy, and it's much bigger than messages.

Ian Haney López: Now with that framework, let's come back to Bernie Sanders and the idea of scapegoating. I think the idea of scapegoating is half right. That is, what Sanders is saying that is so important is that, as economic times get tough, wealthy elites can shift attention away from their own role in producing economic misery for most Americans. By instead pointing the finger at brown and black people, by scapegoating brown and black people. That's completely true. That's very much what's happening. It's very important that we recognize it and call it out, but it's also very important that we recognize that it's half right. That it can lead to some very important misunderstandings about what's actually happening to us.

Ian Haney López: It's half right in the sense that, it points out a dynamic in which once people are under economic stress, race becomes available as a way to divide us. In fact, when we look at the history of racial division in the United States over the last 50 years, that racial division as a political weapon starts at a time when whites in particular are at the apogee, they're doing incredibly well. They're at the tail end of the new deal and the great society programs, the largest expansion of the middle class the United States has ever seen. A strength and security for white families that has been ruined over the last 50 years.

Ian Haney López: It's at the start of that process that you see race gaining so much power in the form of Richard Nixon and the Southern Strategy. A landslide victory for Richard Nixon when he campaigns against African Americans through slogans like the silent majority and law and order against force busing. It's very important to recognize that a scapegoat story by itself implies that race is subsidiary to economics. That economics is the main driver of political conflict, and that when economic times are tough, then and only then race becomes relevant that's just wrong.

Ian Haney López: Race and economics, race and class are completely fused and are always relevant, always tied together. Indeed, the racial element is so powerful that race can be used to divide the country even at a time of relative economic prosperity for whites. Thus, reframed, we can see that this isn't a story about economics alone, and it's not a story about race alone. What we're living and what the United States has always lived, is a fusion between race and class. Or put differently, the number one weapon of economic elites against all of us is racial division, anti-black and anti-brown racism is the primary weapon of choice of the economic elite against all of us white, black and brown. That's a different insight than the one that Bernie's advancing. That's the sort of insight I think that can transform what we think is happening to us and the sorts of coalitions we need to build where we place our priority. Whether it's on race or class or on both simultaneously, that's the shift that needs to happen.

Marc Abizeid: Okay, let me play one more clip from you. This one's not from the book. This one's actually from over the weekend in Detroit or Ann Arbor, somewhere in Michigan. This is from also a Bernie rally, and tell me what you hear in this message. If you think it advances the race class approach or if it's still limited.

Bernie Sanders: That's what demagogues always do. They divide the people up and they pick on the minority. Sometimes the minority are African Americans. Sometimes they're Latinos. Sometimes they're Asians. Sometimes they're Jews. Sometimes abroad they're gypsies. You pick on a minority and you rally the American people or people around the world to hate. Our campaign is exactly the opposite. Our campaign is bringing people together, black and white and Latino, native American, Asian American, gay and straight, around a movement based on love, compassion, and dignity.

Marc Abizeid: What did you hear in that message?

Ian Haney López: I love the call. Sanders is right, the way you build a wave movement is by emphasizing multiracial solidarity. Sanders needs to explain why multiracial solidarity isn't just something we should do because it's the moral thing to do because it's the right thing to do. Sanders needs to explain clearly why it's the only route forward for all of us.

Ian Haney López: He's on the cusp of that when he talks about race being used as a weapon to divide us by demagogues. He needs to go a little bit further. Sanders needs to say something like this, "You all know that I've been fighting for economic justice for 40 years and more, but the truth is, the economic inequality in our country today reflects the purposeful exploitation of racial fear and racial resentment. What that means is that, we will not have economic justice for anybody until we have racial justice for our society. Until we build a cross-racial movement for economic and for racial justice that sees those two as fused. We cannot make a choice between economic justice or racial justice. We cannot prioritize racial justice or economic justice. We must do them both together precisely because racial division is the primary weapon of the rich in the class war they've been winning."

Ian Haney López: That's both an analysis, but an incredibly important story for Sanders followers. It's important for his white followers, many of whom presume that the real issue in their lives is economic. Who struggle to understand why they should also support groups like Black Lives Matter. Simultaneously, that story is really important to voters of color, especially activists of color, who know that Sanders is deeply committed to economic justice, but wonder just how deeply he's committed to racial justice. Were they to hear Sanders saying to his white audiences, "We want our economic justice, and that's why we're fighting for racial justice." That would help people in communities of color have greater confidence that Sanders is building a multiracial movement, because he believes it's fundamentally central to everything he wants to achieve for himself.

Ian Haney López: It's not that, that would strip away a sense of morality or a sense of a new, proud, idealistic vision for America. It's that it would make clear to people that this renewed vision of America in which we take care of each other, including across class lines, is grounded in the solid recognition by every racial group, whites included. That every racial group stands to benefit from coming together and stands to lose by remaining divided.

Marc Abizeid: Another section of the book, you cite an example from 2016 where someone asks him if he supports reparations. He says, no, I'm just going to summarize what he said. "No, but this is what I would do instead." Basically, he says he would invest in infrastructure and make public colleges and universities free. Look at healthcare and he would enact all these policies and he would focus them on the areas, the neighborhoods that need them the most. Meaning black and brown neighborhoods, but he doesn't explicitly say that. How do you take a policy like reparations for example, and frame it raising a race class approach that appeals to people?

Ian Haney López: The race class approach is linking race and class. It's linking economic justice and racial justice in a way that is more powerful than when you approach either of those independently. When you translate this into a policy argument, what the race class approach is doing, is it's arguing both for economic populism and for repair to communities of color and the end of state violence against communities of color.

Ian Haney López: Let's take those separately. Why can't we get economic populism in this country? Why have we lost so much ground from the long, new deal of the great society programs, of the war on poverty? We've lost so much ground, because the right has been successful in promoting the idea that government programs that build ladders of upward mobility for all of us are instead giveaways to undeserving people of color. They should be opposed as such, and that instead people should rely on the marketplace. That's the story of the welfare queen.

Ian Haney López: Frankly, that's the story of Obamacare, the racialization of a major healthcare initiative so that many States with some of the poorest, most unhealthy populations are the very States that have rejected the affordable care act. It was racialized. The Republicans told a story about this desperately needed policy that said, "Healthcare is really a taxing of whites and a giveaway to people of color." In other words, in order for us to build popular support for economic populism that creates routes of upward mobility and that allows all families to thrive, including white families, we need to overcome these stories of racial division. These stories that these sorts of programs disproportionately help people of color who are somehow undeserving. That's why to get economic populism, you need to talk about racial justice.

Ian Haney López: Now let's talk about racial justice itself. When we think about the greatest harms to communities of color over the last half century, we need to think about mass incarceration over policing, what has now evolved into a system of mass deportation. We also need to think about more metaphorical violence, the violence of systematic neglect and disinvestment from infrastructure, from cities, from schools. There has been a tremendous amount of government violence against communities of color over the last 50 or 60 years.

Ian Haney López: What are the origins of that? It is not white racism in the abstract or white racism in the ambient culture. Instead, the real roots of this state violence against communities of color are dog whistle politicians, who campaign by telling stories of dangerous and undeserving people of color. Then who turn around and govern by harnessing government to a theater designed to prove that black and brown people are dangerous. It's a theater that leads to over policing, that leads to stop and frisk, that leads to police violence against black and brown communities. It's a theater that puts the US military on the Southern border, that builds a wall.

Ian Haney López: Now, when I say theater, I don't mean to downplay the incredible damage this does to families. Families are suffering. Communities are being broken. That harm, that suffering is real, but I mean to highlight the cynicism behind these government policies. They are not designed to address real social problems. They are designed to fool people into believing that black and brown communities are somehow different than other communities, somehow inherently dangerous and threatening. That's the whole deal.

Ian Haney López: What does that mean? It means that you cannot end that state violence until you defeat these dog whistle politicians. Even more it means, you cannot begin the process of repair in black and brown communities until you can convince a majority of whites. That the narratives of fear and undeserving-ness that they have been supporting and accepting, are lies that hurt their own white families. We will need a multiracial coalition that rejects racial division and that believes that only by coming together can we get government back on the sides of all of our families. We will need that mass movement before there will be any significant end to state violence against communities of color, and any significant popular support for repair in communities of color.

Ian Haney López: Put differently. If you want economic populism, you've got to address racial division. If you want racial justice, you've got to overcome racial division by showing whites how it leads to losses for them as well. Not the same sorts of losses, not the same source of harm suffered by communities of color, but devastating losses nonetheless. On the level of policy then, the race class message is saying this. The left can unify around cross racial solidarity to take government back and that this unit unifying a message is also the same solution. Whether your primary concern is economic populism or racial justice, it's the same solution. Build a multiracial movement where people see that racial division is a divide and conquer weapon being used against all of us. People understand the route forward for all of us is believing in each other. Taking our government back from dog whistle politicians. Making sure that government works for working families, and in the process of building a genuine multiracial movement, using the power of government to actually repair the harm that has been done by dog whistle politicians and their racist lies in.

Marc Abizeid: The last thing I want to ask you is, if you can give us your analysis of how some of these messages have been translating into voters support among different groups. I have a list here of exit polls from the States that I've already voted in the primaries and caucuses. Bernie, basically he has overwhelming Latino support in the 50s, 60s, 70s. If you look at voters under 30, it can go up I think to like 84% in California alone.

Marc Abizeid: Biden on the other hand, he has the overwhelming support of black voters. It's even higher, like 70%, 80% in some States. What are you seeing as far as their messaging, how that's translating in support and why do you see those numbers so inverted? Or if you think it can be translated into voter support or if there are other dynamics at play here.

Ian Haney López: One thing to be clear about is that, this race class research, which we conducted over 2017 and 2018, it did not just stay in the labs or in focus groups or in polling. It was used in Minnesota in 2018 to really amazing effect. Anat Shenker-Osorio, the communication specialist who was my partner in this, one of my partners in this helped run that campaign Greater Than Fear, that was the catch phrase they used. It's very, very effective. This approach is also being used by people's action right now on the ground in North Carolina, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania. There's very good evidence on the ground all across the country that this is a very effective message for politically mobilizing folks.

Ian Haney López: Now, in that context, what's happening in terms of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden? What we found when we conducted our focus groups was that, African Americans in particular, but Latinos also were really skeptical about the possibility of significant change in the country's direction. They didn't have much confidence in a multiracial coalition. They didn't have much confidence in the idea that we could all come together and really change the country's direction. They felt, frankly, a little bit more cynical about those possibilities. They certainly felt more cynical about politicians who approached them and promised them a bright new future. They felt that that was often.

Ian Haney López: When we tried out those messages, what we often heard back was, that's the sort of thing people say every four years, it's not going to happen. That's the dynamic that's currently benefiting Joe Biden. Joe Biden is a safety candidate. He's a candidate that many older black voters believe can actually win. They don't believe that he's going to do much for the black community. They may be well aware of Biden's ugly history of himself relying on dog whistle politics to get elected. Even if they're aware of that, they think, "We know Joe, he was vice president or Barack Obama. He's not going to help us much, but he's not going to drag us backwards. We are under real threat from Donald Trump. We're under real threat from the sorts of forces of white supremacy, resurgent white supremacy that Trump has unleashed across the South. We're going to vote for the candidate who we think is most likely to be able to keep us safe, even if he's not going to substantially improve our position."

Ian Haney López: Part of this has to be laid at the feet of Bernie Sanders, who needs to do a better job. A, showing up in black communities, but B, delivering a story in which black communities in particular can believe. Not only that Bernie's deeply committed to the wellbeing of those communities, but also that Bernie has a message that can actually win in the 2020 election. That's where I think Bernie could really benefit from a message that really forcefully pushes the idea that we're all in this together. That seeks to demonstrate very strong support from his white voters, his white base. That they understand that we're all in this together, and that the route forward is only through a multiracial coalition.

Ian Haney López: What we found in our focus groups is that, when we told black and brown voters, "White folks too are being hurt by racism is tactic of division and white folks have their own interest in joining a multiracial coalition," that made those voters black and brown voters much less cynical about the possibility of a multiracial coalition and indeed much more enthusiastic. We started hearing back from people, "If whites understood that they need to join this movement because that's how they can take care of themselves, then we really would have a movement that could change this country that nobody could stand up to." That's what the elites are afraid of, that whites might recognize and really fight for cross-racial solidarity. Bernie needs to demonstrate that, that's true, not just of his rhetoric, but that, that's true in his base, that they really get it.

Ian Haney López: That's how to convince people that a genuine mass movement is possible today, because any genuine mass movement has to be multiracial. How can we, in black and brown communities be convinced that whites are really going to invest in that multiracial movement? We need to hear a story that is saying to whites, invest in a multiracial movement because that's the only route forward for your own families. We need to see that sort of message take hold in Bernie's base.

Ian Haney López: It's a big hill to climb at this point in the elections, but the evidence that we've seen so far in terms of how this message of cross-racial solidarity, of rejecting intentional division and coming together to take care of each other, the evidence we've seen so far of how this message works, is incredibly strong. There's a very, very strong resonance in this message that is immediate already, right now, today.

Ian Haney López: This is the most potent political message out there. It's far stronger than a racial justice alone message. It's stronger than an economic populism alone message, and it's the only progressive message that consistently beats the rights message of racial fear. There's really good reason for Sanders to adopt that message immediately, and to really push the idea that race and class are completely intertwined in America. That we will solve the challenges of economic inequality and racial injustice simultaneously. That is the only way we will solve those problems.

Marc Abizeid: That wraps up this episode of Who Belongs. I'd like to thank our guest Ian Haney Lopez for coming on and talk about his new book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. For a transcript of this talk, visit us online at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.