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 writing scripts for canvassing or for social media campaigns to use more specific language, such as “people of different races and from different places” or “white, Black, or brown.” Mentioning race like this helps to turn our vision of cross-racial solidarity into a reality.
To give an example, here is a message from the RCN research designed to build support for progressive issues and push back against divisiveness from our opposition:
America’s strength comes from our ability to work together—bringing together people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place where everyone can thrive, we cannot let the 1% and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from, or how much money they have. We need to join together to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past. Coming together, we can elect new leaders who will deliver better healthcare for our families, quality schools for our kids, and a fair return on our work.
Across the country, organizations have used the RCN to move voters on important issues. In 2018, activists in Minnesota used it in Greater Than Fear, a campaign designed to push back against anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric and actions. Partners used the RCN research to build a strong campaign brand that included messaging guides, trainings, rallies, ads, print materials, and a digital strategy. On election night in 2018, the Minnesota House of Representatives flipped, turning blue. Democrats also won the gubernatorial, attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor races. Now, they are pushing an ambitious RCN-infused We Make Minnesota revenue campaign that could have long-lasting results for families across the state. They are not avoiding conversations about race and class but leaning into them to tell a story about how racism is deployed against all of us for the economic gains of a powerful few.
In the spring of 2019, People’s Action incorporated RCN into their deep canvassing program in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, with the goal of increasing support for including immigrants in expanded healthcare coverage. These states were chosen because they had all seen an uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment and white nationalist organizing, and because they were important to the 2020 election. Deep canvassing goes beyond typical door-knocking. It involves longer, candid conversations where canvassers ask voters to share emotionally significant experiences. Even though the conversations did not explicitly mention the president, at the end of this program, researchers found a 3 percent decrease in support for Trump plus a 20 percent increase in support for expanded healthcare coverage that would include undocumented immigrants—a shift that was larger than the shift in vote share from Democrat to Republican between 2012 and 2016. More conversations like this could have huge effects on electoral politics.
The movements that have dared to use the RCN have shown how strategically naming race and calling for multiracial prosperity can lead to progressive victories. More recently, using RCN has proven successful in ballot measures and in get-out-the-vote efforts. It was used in mailers and scripts to successfully support expanding Medicaid to 230,000 Missourians and had a positive impact on returned ballots and early in-person voting in Wisconsin.
The RCN provides us with the beginnings of a roadmap to progressive victories, but more research is needed to create a strategy that can successfully conquer the right. We hope that the framework can provide a model for further research into the most effective ways to address strategic racism in its varied forms as we fight for a new democracy and economy.
Anika Fassia is the co-director of the new home for Race Class Narrative implementation, We Make the Future Action. Prior to this role, she served as Director of Outreach and Training at Race Class Narrative Action, where she led the outreach and partnerships of organizations spanning seven Midwestern states.
Tinselyn Simms is the co-director of We Make the Future Action. Prior to this role, she served as Assistant Director of Communications at the Service Employees International Union, where she led communications for the Racial Justice Center. She spearheaded the labor union’s involvement in Race Class Narrative research.