Looking for a United Working Class

One-third of Robert Kuttner’s “Dividends of a Just Economy” in the NY Review of Books:

Racism, in Gunnar Myrdal’s phrase, remains the American dilemma — and a special dilemma for Democrats. For a progressive majority to be built on common economic issues, it must be multiracial. There have been two great moments of American biracial coalition. They were separated by a century, and both ended badly. Lincoln’s was halted by his assassination; his intended legacy of racial inclusion was short-circuited by the ending of Reconstruction in 1876. Lyndon Johnson’s comment that passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act would destroy the Democratic Party in the South understated what followed. Republicans, repeating the tactics of the postbellum planter class and the anti-populists of the 1890s, have used race to destroy any solidarity between poor whites and blacks.

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us is a powerful call for racial alliance. More than a moral appeal, McGhee’s book provides a practical manual on how to bring it about. McGhee, a former president of the progressive think tank Demos, argues that the most effective form of antiracism is to embrace both race and class. Racism hurts Blacks disproportionately, but it also hurts whites who could benefit from activist policies precluded by the politics of racial division. “Black people and other people of color certainly lost out when we weren’t able to invest more in the aftermath of the Great Recession,” she writes. “But did white people win? No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us.” McGhee is out to challenge what she terms the “zero-sum paradigm”: the premise that if Blacks gain, it must be at the expense of whites, and vice versa.

McGhee quotes Hinton Helper, a white southerner who wrote a book in 1857 tallying all the ways that the planter class that governed the South shortchanged ordinary whites. Pennsylvania, Helper reported, had 393 public libraries; South Carolina 26. New Hampshire had 2,381 public schools; Mississippi 782. Plantation owners had a captive labor force. They didn’t need or want educated whites. As McGhee notes, the pattern carries on to this day. In 1959 the government of Montgomery, Alabama, paved over the city’s swimming pools, closed its parks, and even eliminated the zoo rather than see these public facilities integrated. Whites suffered along with Blacks. The states with the poorest and least educated populations and those with the most threadbare public services are still those in the South.

McGhee documents these realities with care: white people who can’t get affordable health insurance; white people bilked by mortgage fraudsters; white people no longer able to attend free public universities; employers who defeat union organizing by dividing workers by race. Each example reflects the absence of better policies for all, a possibility precluded by racial animus. McGhee is unsparing in describing how this version of America is harder still on Blacks. But the challenge is to make this story persuasive to white voters attracted by the likes of Trump, so that they shift their allegiance from racism to progressive economics.

From her reporting across America, McGhee points to case after case of cross-racial organizing for common betterment: the welcoming of refugees in Lewiston, Maine, as a way of repopulating empty storefronts and bringing new economic energy to a depressed town; a new wave of common efforts around the fight for a $15-per-hour minimum wage; union organizing of service workers, even in the Deep South. A transracial alliance, she writes, would produce a “solidarity dividend” of greater social protections for all races, the kind just demonstrated by Biden’s enactment of a universal child allowance using refundable tax credits. Playing off the story of Montgomery draining its public pools, McGhee calls for refilling “the pool of public goods.” Because of the greater legacy of Black poverty, public provision helps Blacks disproportionately, but aids whites as well, and cumulatively builds transracial affinity and alliance.

McGhee credits and builds on the work of Ian Haney López, whose most recent book, Merge Left, is a complementary call for racial coalition. Like McGhee, he is both nuanced and unflinching. “I had assumed that the main stumbling block to urging cross-racial solidarity would be convincing a majority of whites,” he writes. “Equally formidable, it turned out, was enlisting support from people directly focused on racial justice, overwhelmingly activists of color.”

Haney López is a law professor at Berkeley. His earlier scholarly work on race included pioneering research on how even the Supreme Court got pulled into determining who was white, because immigration in the nineteenth century was limited to whites, and “white” had to be defined.

His 2014 book, Dog Whistle Politics, is the definitive study of the use of language in veiled racist appeals going back to Richard Nixon.

In his latest book, Haney López uses his academic expertise in the service of his work as an organizer. He recounts his extensive meetings with groups ranging from white trade unionists fed up with the charge of racial insensitivity to Black militants who insist that antiracism must take precedence over making common cause with dubious allies. This work is as difficult as it is urgent. One white, who professes sympathy for the civil rights cause, says that Black talk about slavery is “a horrible crutch to not trying, not working, not fixing yourself.”

Haney López’s mission is to persuade both groups that they need each other, and to fashion language to further that political goal. “Many of the Right’s most debilitating stories about working people—including white working families,” he writes, citing the best-seller Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, “are recycled stereotypes about African Americans.”

One concrete result of his leadership is called the Race-Class Narrative Project, initiated in 2017 with the participation of pollsters, linguists, and diverse progressive activists including McGhee. It rigorously tested language in focus groups and larger meetings. These included both open-ended discussions of racially fraught issues and more explicit testing of different messages. The data confirmed Haney López’s intuition. Researchers found that presenting issues in combined appeals to race and class was more convincing to voters than “the dog whistle racial fear message,” and that race-class approaches that acknowledged the special challenges of race “were more convincing than colorblind economic populism.” Three quarters of respondents in a multiracial group agreed with this statement:

Instead of delivering for working people, politicians hand kickbacks to their donors who send jobs overseas. Then they turn around and blame new immigrants or people of color, to divide and distract us from the real source of our problems.

Haney López is mindful of the tightrope act, and he is resolute in his conclusion: we can’t duck race, but we need to talk about it in a way that builds transracial unity: “For centuries, our greatest heroes—radicals like W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and César Chavez—have insisted that American salvation requires cross-racial alliances.”

Recent events affirm these arguments. Only because of the razor-thin electoral success of Democrats in Georgia, which turned two Senate seats, has Biden been able to get legislation through Congress and progressive officials confirmed. Some leaders grasped the power of the “race-class narrative” before it had a name. The success in Georgia was built on ten years of organizing led by Stacey Abrams, who has been a touchstone for Black mobilization but succeeded in building a deliberately multiracial movement. If Biden and Congress can block the latest round of outright racial voter suppression efforts, Georgia could prove a hopeful harbinger of what America can be.