Scorched Earth Racism, Positive Sum Antiracism

Scorched Earth Racism, Positive Sum Antiracism

After a Democratic primary contest suffused with racial justice themes and a summer of Black Lives Matter uprisings, it is once again time for Democrats to convince themselves that they mustn’t talk too much about race, lest they spook the white moderates. The latest splash has been made by a new paper by Yale political scientists Micah English and Joshua Calla, who compare survey respondents’ reactions to different race and/or class frames for a handful of policies. They conclude: “Democrats’ use of racial frames in describing their progressive policies may inadvertently make it harder for them to adopt public policies that will advance racial justice.”

At Matt Yglesias’s site Slow Boring, Marc Novicoff sounded similar caution, citing data that show progressive policies enjoy substantial support even among survey respondents with high racial resentment scores. The lesson seems clear: 

So I don’t think this should be taboo to say: Americans, on average, are in line with (or even to the left of) Democrats on economics, but they are not in line with the Democrats’ new focus on making everything about race, including the very economic ideas that give them a fighting chance to win elections. [Emphasis in original]

Brink Lindsey at the Niskanen Center affirms, to his credit, the general accuracy of the standard issue antiracist diagnoses of the American political economy. ”The crimes of slavery and Jim Crow cannot be relegated to the past and put behind us, because their legacy lives on in deep structural disadvantages for Black people.” But he goes on to cite Novicoff’s essay and argue that the best way to achieve racial justice is to do so obliquely, without drawing attention to the racial justice that progressive policy can bring about. Lindsey urges us to “[look] past racial divisions to make a unifying, positive-sum case for necessary reforms offers a much more promising path toward racial equity.”

I endorse Lindsey’s call for a unifying positive sum message. But there can be no positive sum narrative that doesn’t identify racial injustice conspicuously. In real life politics, even apparently race-neutral issues will inevitably be racialized. To advance the very positive sum policies Yglesias and Lindsey desire, racial justice must be confronted directly.

Scorched earth racism

I want to be clear upfront that Yglesias and Lindsey are both talking about policies that are facially race-neutral; neither denies racial discrimination exists and obviously has to be talked about in race-conscious ways. But the race-neutral crowd fails to appreciate the classic, ongoing Republican strategy of using coded appeals to racist stereotypes to push policy. This has been the Republican playbook since at least Lee Atwater’s famous and explicit case to President Nixon for pursuing anti-Black racism through facially race-neutral economic policy. We all know the dog whistles: “law and order” and “super predators” for crime, “welfare queens in Cadillacs” and “handouts” for the social safety net, etc. This racialized language works to get Republicans to oppose a social safety net that benefits mostly white people.

There is no reason to think that if Democratic politicians meticulously avoided mentioning the racial justice dimensions of baby bonds, or a $15 minimum wage, or student debt relief, then Republicans would in turn graciously holster one of their most reliable rhetorical weapons.

In the Sum of Us, Heather McGhee describes how racist narratives frame policies and institutions in zero-sum terms. Republicans demonize anything that might benefit people of color, especially Black people. McGhee’s workhorse analogy is the desegregation of the public pool. When the order came to desegregate public pools and allow Black citizens to enjoy the public good they helped to fund, white folks decided to close the pools and fill them with concrete instead of share them with their Black neighbors.

The same pattern has repeated itself across any number of issues, from welfare programs—a universal basic income originally had Republican supporters—to health care, which became even more racialized when it became associated with the first Black President. The racialization of health care hurts Black and white alike. McGhee notes that “[o]ne thing that all of the states with the highest hospital closures have in common is that their legislatures have all refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.” [McGhee loc. 1080]

McGhee describes how redistribution is anathematized by racial narratives:

The welfare trope also did the powerful blame-shifting work of projection: like telling white aristocrats that it was their slaves who were the lazy ones, the Black welfare stereotype was a total inversion of the way the U.S. government had actually given “free stuff” to one race over all others. To this day, even though Black and brown people are disproportionately poor, white Americans constitute the majority of low-income people who escape poverty because of government safety net programs. Nonetheless, the idea that Black people are the “takers” in society while white people are the hardworking taxpayers—the “makers”—has become a core part of the zero-sum story preached by wealthy political elites. Whether it’s the more subtle “47 percent” version from millionaire Mitt Romney or the more racially explicit Fox News version sponsored by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, it works. In 2016, the majority of white moderates (53 percent) and white conservatives (69 percent) said that Black Americans take more than we give to society. We take more than we give.

McGhee loc. 774

McGhee extends her argument to even less apparently race-adjacent policy struggles. The subprime mortgage crisis was facilitated by early testing of subprime mortgages on people of color before they were extended to the broader population. Media and policymakers ignored the “canary in the coal mine” of Black mortgage defaults because they fit existing narratives of Black financial perfidy and irresponsibility until the crisis exploded, to global consequences.

The English and Calla study tested race and class framings in isolation. But people may respond to narrative framings differently in isolation than they do in the presence of counter-messaging in an active political campaign. 

“[I]f you try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree…right up until they hear the counter-message that does talk, even implicitly, about race. Racial scapegoating about “illegals,” drugs, gangs, and riots undermines public support for working together. Our research showed that color-blind approaches that ignored racism didn’t beat the scapegoating zero-sum story; we had to be honest about racism’s role in dividing us in order to call people to their higher ideals. [Emphasis mine]

McGhee loc. 1243

McGhee and colleagues advance a “race-class narrative” approach that “foregrounds combating intentional divide-and-conquer racial politics by building a multiracial coalition among all racial groups.” This contrasts with the race + class framing English and Calla used in their study, which simply adds a racial justice argument for a policy on top of a class-based argument. Matt Yglesias scoffs at the distinction, tweeting

But the difference is important. It’s unsurprising that giving a racial justice justification for a facially race-neutral progressive policy might fail to inspire. The listener may wonder, like my white mother once did, “why do they always make it about race?” Or simply “what’s in this policy for me?” But a race-class narrative preempts the rightwing racialization and provides a plausible villain (the rich and powerful) to replace the scapegoat role performed by Blacks, immigrants, and other Others. The race-class narrative enjoys the additional virtue of being true.

We should view exhortations to tiptoe around racism with suspicion if only because it is such a powerful temptation for whites to believe that the way forward is to do what already makes us comfortable. “Don’t talk about race” has been the Democratic rule of political thumb for decades. I confess that as a self-conscious antiracist I found the racial justice saturation of the 2020 Democratic primary refreshing. I thought it was great that we were finally speaking forthrightly about how racial inequality is perpetuated by policies that are ostensibly race-neutral. But, especially in the debates, this could take the form of tacking on “racial justice” to every issue without more carefully crafting the narrative of how politicians use race is to divide us. After decades of failure by mainstream politicians to acknowledge and oppose systemic racism at all, perhaps I was too easily satisfied when they stumbled over themselves to attach it to every policy in the more simplistic race + class approach.

Positive sum antiracism

We’ll be talking about race regardless—there’s no putting that genie back into the bottle, and we should blame racism for that, not antiracism. But what of the zero-sum nature of antiracist rhetoric that Brink Lindsey warns against? He writes

Indeed, the whole idea of white privilege gets things upside down. The real problem we face in our country is not white privilege, but Black disadvantage. What’s wrong is that Black people have been mistreated and are suffering as a result, not that white people have it too good. Greeting the arrival of police with relief rather than fear that your life may soon end, enjoying decent schools for your kids, living in affordable housing reasonably close to work—these are the rightful expectations of all citizens in a 21st century advanced democracy, not the special perks of a ruling racial caste.

It will do no good to remind readers that Peggy McIntosh herself, in her 1989 coinage of the term “white privilege,” distinguished between “positive advantages which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantages which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.” But Lindsey is right that there is a deep current in antiracist rhetoric that white people benefit from the oppression of Black people. And it’s true: for positional goods like social status, whites do benefit from always being a rung up the social ladder from racial minorities. When institutions can no longer be whites-only (de facto or de jure), whites lose the power to exclude and the perverse satisfaction that obtains therefrom. When immigration and differential birth rates usher in a race-plural era, whites will no longer be able to see themselves as the default Americans.

But there is a far more important dimension along which antiracism offers non-zero-sum possibilities for everyone, whites included. McGhee’s argument gives the lie to the popular talking point among its opponents that “identity politics” must be centrifugal, tending to drive us apart as citizens. Instead, McGhee presents inspiring examples of a “solidarity dividend” where people resisted racist narratives and benefited from racial integration, like a town in Maine that has been revitalized by African immigrants. Multiracial solidarity attentive to the needs of each of its constituents is centripetal—pulling people in—and the solidarity dividend is fully general, as it must be if we think human beings are better equipped for productive social life when the capabilities of each of us are fully developed and fully integrated into society.

Advancing racial justice and racial integration is not a nice-to-have policy feature, but a central policy objective in its own right. We should argue for policies like liberal housing reform, baby bonds, and postal banking on the basis of their broad, cross-class, positive-sum virtues (while alerting voters to oligarch-backed racist framing). But we should also press for these policies because they get us closer to a racially integrated society that by the very fact is more conducive to greater freedom and prosperity overall than our present racially stratified society. We should both preempt the rightwing racialization of facially race-neutral policies and cultivate an overarching grand narrative of racial solidarity that makes political culture inhospitable to racist framings in the first place.

When we think in the long term, it seems obvious that even the most advantaged white men stand to benefit from racial integration and racial solidarity, because there is no logical stopping point to the scorched earth nature of zero-sum racial narratives. There is no better example of this destructive capacity than the (re)turn to overt antidemocratic white nationalism in the form of Trumpism, and the willingness of the Republican Party to betray basic democratic institutions like free elections and the peaceful transfer of power. 

Greater prosperity—in economic growth as well as in the broadest sense of human development—is possible when we can solve existential collective action problems like climate change, when we can build high quality public goods and infrastructure, and when we can fully develop the innovative powers of each person in society. The old world monarchs were fools to violently suppress liberal and democratic stirrings instead of retiring as pampered, benevolent figureheads. In the same way, white elites saw off the branches on which they perch when they employ racial resentment to maintain extractive hierarchies instead of using their influence to secure inclusive institutions. Even the rich and powerful will suffer—have already suffered—the consequences of economic stagnation and political destabilization.

Bold, holistic antiracism is the path to the prosperous, multicultural, positive-sum commercial republic that inspires Lindsey and me both. But holistic antiracism can also lead to the kind of national greatness vision that guided Yglesias in One Billion Americans. As Yglesias might say, America is pretty good and has a lot to offer the world, especially when compared to authoritarian global powers. But persistent racial inequality is a lead weight, dragging America down and preventing us from reaching our full potential as a nation. De facto racial segregation locks out Blacks and other racial minorities from fully plugging into entrepreneurial markets, networks, and other critical sites of innovation. Racial inequality and flagrant racist oppression embarrass America on the world stage, and provide grist for the propaganda mills of our illiberal adversaries. This was well understood by intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and the recent use of social media to exploit racial divisions and tamper with American elections highlights our ongoing vulnerability. But we can dismantle racial inequality if we choose to. If we can put a man on the moon, beat the Nazis to the bomb, rebuild postwar Europe, and become the arsenal of vaccines for the world, then surely we can break the back of racism once and for all. There’s never been a greater cause for national mobilization.

Featured image is March for Racial Justice, Washington, D.C. September 30, 2017, photo by Philip N. Cohen from photo essay, “It’s Better to be Angry Together,” Contexts magazine.