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8. RACE, CLASS & DEMOCRACY

RACE & CLASS: written by Heather McGhee

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Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess
8. RACE, CLASS & DEMOCRACY

RACE & CLASS:

Heather McGhee

I’ve spent twenty years working to address inequality in our economy and in our democracy, first from the think tank world, then advising campaigns and candidates, and then, about four years ago, I decided to leave what was in many ways my dream job—running Demos, an amazing think tank—in order to go out in the country. I spent three years on the road traveling from California to Mississippi to Maine and back again, multiple times, talking to ordinary people, talking to organizers, talking to people who had lost faith in politics.

What I came back with was the basis for my book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. My goal was to understand why it seems like we can’t have nice things in America—I’ll save you the 400 pages, the answer is racism.

Racism in our politics and in our policymaking is so pervasive and so undermines our sense of being in it together, that it imposes a cost for everyone. Now, this is a pretty radical idea to put forward—it runs contrary to the liberal orthodoxy to hear from a black woman, who descends from enslaved people on both sides of my family, to say that racism isn’t just a great thing for the people at the top of the racial hierarchy, but ultimately it is the weapon that the plutocrats use to divide and to conquer. For if we ever were to have a broad multiracial working- and middle-class solidarity in this country, the billionaires would be on the run. And they know that. Which is why they have pumped an incredible amount of money into us-versus-them, zero-sum politics, the demonization of people of color for an economically anxious white audience, a 24/7 social media and cable news white nationalist ecosystem.

At its worst, it leads to things like January Sixth, the massacre in Buffalo, both of which were animated by the so-called Great Replacement Theory—the existential fear that people of color are replacing white Americans, and that America is for white people to begin with. So at worst it risks the entire project of democracy and becomes a trigger for political violence.

We all know that this country has had a civil war in its short life. But since then, it should be clear how racism is used in our politics and policymaking to undermine our ability to come together to win public justice and public goods. The kinds of racist stereotypes that, for example, would persuade a senator to refuse to renew the child tax credit because he’s heard that people use it for drugs…which effectively killed the renewal. It’s the racism that produces the demonization and stereotypes and biases that make us punch down in our society, and that cut the chord of empathy.

So what does that mean for candidates who are trying—by necessity and hopefully by their inclination—to create a multi-racial, winning coalition? That means that we’ve got to speak about race and class not only in the same speech, not only in the same ad, but as inextricably connected. I want to give you a few examples.

There’s a man now running for the Senate who is a former state legislator in Kentucky, named Charles Booker. He is, of course, an authentic son of the working class—that authenticity matters. But he also developed a message and a story that is explicitly trying to connect what he calls “the hood”—black disinvested neighborhoods—to “the holler”—white disinvested neighborhoods. And by explicitly making the connections between the ills that face “the hood” and “the holler,” he is calling for a bigger Us—an Us that includes everyone who struggles.

In his telling, the term Them in white audiences doesn’t become people of color and immigrants, Them becomes the corrupt politicians and the billionaires who pay for them who are trying to pit us against one another. This is a turn that is frankly not always comfortable for white progressive politicians to take – i.e., to say that racism is bad for white people, too. What’s interesting is that it’s been people like Jesse Jackson in the Rainbow Coalition and Charles Booker who are really able to make that connection so clear. But I want to invite all of us who are trying to build a multi-racial coalition to attack inequality, to release the stranglehold that the corporate power and the billionaires’ greed have on our people and our planet.

We need to get smarter. There is no option to avoid talking about race, even if we do and have the most populist economic message we possibly can (as Warren and Sanders and, of course, Ralph Nader did). In this day and age, when race is the ecosystem, it’s the oxygen of politics, of people’s neighborhoods, of people’s anxieties, black, white, and brown, we have to have a story that includes how race fits into the country we are in and the one we want to be. Who’s on your side? Who is the enemy? Who do we need to organize against? Who do we need to organize with? Who is to blame?

If we’re not answering those questions in our political storytelling, then we’re not actually telling stories. Anybody who has a child knows there’s always a good guy there’s always a bad guy—and we need to not be afraid to fill in the answer of who that is. Because if we don’t, a much louder and more coordinated right wing will make each other the answer to that question.

What does that mean in the context of some of our current political debates? I want to raise what I— if I were a candidate—would do if attacked on the idea that my book is critical race theory. If I were running for Congress right now, the RNC would be thrilled to be able to throw the critical race theory ad hominem at me. And here’s how I would respond: first, we’re a great country, and we are great enough to not be afraid of our own truth and our own history. Second of all, this is not black history— this is all of our histories. Both the good and the bad. And over 80 percent of Americans believe that we need to teach the best parts of our history and the parts we never ever ever want to repeat.

Ultimately, we are a country that has, from the beginning of our history, had an organized force of concentrated money and concentrated power that has been willing to exploit human beings, to rip apart families, to pit us against one another for their own greed. That force was alive in the days of plantations, and it’s alive today, and we need to be united against it.

Politicians are worried about what our children are learning at school but they should also learn how to spot those people who want to pit us against each other today. Our children need to learn empathy and civics to be great citizens. Yet most Republicans want to defund public schools in order to scare parents away from them.

Democrats should contrast that with our goal of equipping our children to live in the multiracial 21st century and in a global economy, and to understand that the most important things that matter in life are those things that we have to do together. And in the country that we’re becoming, that includes what we must do across lines of race…which is nothing to be afraid of but rather something to cheer.

So what I just did briefly was to make sure that candidates explain that the enemy is not teachers trying to teach Beloved in high school but rather a right-wing cabal that wants to keep us divided from one another. That the enemy has always been afraid of integrated education. The enemy has always been afraid of public goods. Why? Because a government that’s strong enough to help us meet our basic needs and have a shot of fulfilling our dreams is also a government that’s strong enough to stop them from cheating on their taxes, poisoning our air and water, and destroying small businesses and small farms.

Usually left out of the talk about schools being “woke” but instead about politicians who should be making an economic argument and a public goods argument simultaneously, as we are making an argument about racism and depression of people of color. Answers need to always include “Each Other” — about “turning to one another.” Paint a picture of an America where we solve big problems together, feel strong and courageous because we have each other’s backs and can defeat the forces that want to keep us afraid of one another.

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