The Race Class Narrative Can Win

The Race Class Narrative Can Win

The rich and powerful use racism to protect their interests and scapegoat communities of color. But there is an effective way to talk about both race and class when organizing for multiracial democracy.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on class and race in our summer issue.


We’re glad to be at a point in American political discourse where the question being posed is how to talk about race and class, rather than whether to do so. For too long, many on the left, especially white progressives, have shied away from talking directly about race and racism. Talking about race, they have argued, is divisive and costs us electoral victories. This approach centers the experiences of white voters, who don’t feel the direct impact of racism in our economy or democracy, and neglects the concerns of people of color, who make up a large portion of our base. It also ignores the fact that race is always being discussed by our opponents. By not responding to the racial sentiments of their narratives, we leave their potent messages unopposed. As a result, we lose persuadable voters and fail to mobilize our base.

Many of us who are doing the day-to-day organizing work to build a multiracial democracy struggle to find effective ways to talk about race and class. We often resort to tactics that either don’t connect with or alienate the people we are trying to move.

The Race Class Narrative (RCN), developed by Ian Haney López, Heather McGhee, and Anat Shenker-Osorio, is a rigorously researched framework that addresses these concerns. We can use it to fight back against the ways that strategic racism is weaponized by the rich and powerful to protect their interests, scapegoat communities of color, and leave us all fighting for scraps. It is a narrative structure that reveals the strategy of the right and builds cross-racial support for progressive policies.

This work is essential if we want to beat the right. As McGhee writes in her recent book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, if we

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.

The RCN tries to do just that. Rather than saying “all people” or “everyone,” the narrative advises those writin...