Ian Haney López is regarded as one of the nation’s leading thinkers on how racism has evolved in the United States since the civil rights era.
Currently a professor of law at the University of California Berkeley, he is the author of three books, most notably “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” which showed how decades of subliminal racial language have systematically dismantled programs and policies that benefit lower- and middle-income Americans. His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times.
Haney López will discuss his work and how to rebuild support for a government that helps people realize their full potential and achieve enduring economic security at Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 6 at Embassy Suites Denver Downtown Convention Center.
Prior to the unsettling and racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, CCLP Communications Director Bob Mook talked to Haney López about the themes explored in “Dog Whistle Politics” and what the future holds. This is Part 2 of a three-part Q&A. Part 1 was posted last week.
The views expressed by Haney López don’t necessarily express those of Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which addresses poverty-related issues through research, advocacy, litigation and education.
CCLP: A lot of middle Americans – a few of whom are related to me — seem to believe that racism went away with the civil rights movement and after we elected a Black president. How do we convince those people that we have a problem?
IHL: Having these conversations within family can be challenging, no doubt!
In my experience talking about divide-and-conquer politics, though, people understand it. They’ve seen this dynamic in their lives and their workplaces, maybe using race, maybe using other forms of division. From there, it becomes something that’s pretty easy to see in our politics.
The deep social divisions that bedevil our society don’t reflect the American people. They reflect a strategy among our politicians. That strategy is fundamental to this other thing that we see but don’t understand: how the rules get rigged to help the economic titans. If we start with a narrative about divide-and-conquer politics that ultimately favors the greedy corporations, then we can make clear that social divisions hurt all of us and only help the 1 percent
Look at all of this administration’s attacks on people of color, Syrian refugees, and undocumented immigrants. And also transgender rights, sexual orientation, gender, abortion and Planned Parenthood. These things are part of the strategy: Rile people up with warnings that other regular people are the biggest threats of their lives. Then, with people battling each other, seize government and rewrite the rules of the economy to shovel more power and wealth to the billionaire class.
There’s a broad recognition – including among Republicans – that the economy is rigged, that government has largely been captured by economic elites. They’ve written the rules of government and the economy to favor themselves. Trump supporters understood this. One of Trump’s most popular lines was his promise to “drain the swamp.” But that was a complete fabrication in terms of what he actually went on to do – as evidenced by all the Goldman Sachs alums on his cabinet. He created a cabinet of swamp creatures.
Is this an analysis or narrative that everybody will understand? Not by a long-shot. But I do think it’s an understanding about American politics that we could use to rebuild a governing coalition. Not just 50 percent plus one, but 58 to 60 percent – the sort of numbers you need to create a wave election that will actually change how the country is run.
CCLP: Why do you think so many low-income, White, rural voters voted against their own self-interest in the last election? I think of the folks in Kentucky who might have health insurance for the first time because of the Affordable Care Act.
IHL: I would be careful about the phrase “self-interests” because it masks too much. What we really mean is they’re voting in ways that support the billionaire class and hurt their economic interests. They’re voting for a government that’s going to pull the social safety net out from under them and let them fail, suffer, go hungry or homeless. Instead, they’re going to get huge tax cuts for the billionaires.
But let’s keep pushing and ask, “What do they think they’re getting here? What’s animating them to support this kind of a deal?” It seems the main thing they hope to get by voting for someone like Donald Trump is a different sort of interest: respect. They hope their status and position in society will be reaffirmed. They’re pushing back against all these new people who are demanding “equality.” By that, I mean people of color and immigrants. I’m also talking about women who are demanding equal pay and an end to traditional patriarchy, as well as sexual-orientation minorities and non-Christians.
Additionally, often Trump voters feel disrespected by a condescending cultural elite. We used to think of the “elite” as the titans of wealth, the lords of industry who wield their wealth to boss around the little guy. But Republicans since the 1950s have been very successful in shifting resentment from the rich and powerful to the cultural elites, the Hollywood liberals, the mainstream media and university professors – all of these progressives who supposedly despise the working man. Supporting a boorish billionaire like Donald Trump lets people poke their finger in the eye of those cultural elites. Though I would ask: who truly condescends to working people? The cultural elite who insist on humane values? Or the billionaires who manipulate people’s fears?
In any event, what people are voting for is a chance for self-respect. They want to feel respected. They want to preserve and restore a status they feel has been taken away from them. We need to understand the importance of respect and feeling like you belong and that you’re recognized.
We also need to understand that everybody ought to feel that way—and that it’s morally wrong to rebuild one’s status by tearing others down. It’s immoral. If the goal is to feel that you’re respected and you belong, the moral solution is to build a community of mutual respect and belonging.
We also need to show that by building social solidarity, we can actually take power back from the billionaire class. It’s important to shift the language toward that and away from “voting against their own self-interests.”
-By Bob Mook
Want to hear more from Professor López? Join us for breakfast and conversation with him on Oct. 6 at CCLP’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast.