Biden’s Quiet ‘Breakthrough’ In Talking About Race

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For decades, a political calculation has quietly undergirded the sales pitch many Democratic political leaders have made for their economic agenda: If you want to win majority support, don’t bring up race. But if the opening months of the Biden administration are any indication, the math seems to have shifted.

In a recent speech in Pittsburgh where he debuted his infrastructure plan, President Joe Biden invoked any number of universal goals — road spending, “creating good-paying jobs” — while also stressing the need to invest in “communities that have historically been left out of these investments: Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American.” In selling its stimulus plan, the White House identified “advancing racial equity” as one of five cornerstones, giving it equal importance as such overarching goals as “investing in America” and “building back better.”

“Calling out that … racism is holding the entire country back is groundbreaking for a U.S. president,” says Heather McGhee, the former head of the progressive think tank Demos and author of the new book The Sum of Us, which argues that the decline of investment in the “public good” was fueled by racism, and has damaged the American middle class across racial lines. “The president was saying that this is a core story of America that is different from and at odds with many of our more celebrated narratives about equality and liberty and opportunity. That was a breakthrough.”

Since at least the mid-1980s, the pursuit of the archetypal “Reagan Democrat” suburban swing voter has been a lodestar guiding Democratic messaging. The strategy was straightforward: These socially moderate-to-conservative suburban white Americans largely were simpatico with Democrats on economic issues, but voted for the GOP in part because they believed Democrats were interested in pursuing racial justice at the expense of issues they viewed as more relevant to their own lives.

The result of that thinking was a “color-blind” approach to talking about economic policies and programs — emphasizing a “rising tide lifts all boats” message that glossed over or ignored racial disparities. But for reasons both ideological and strategic, that “color-blind” posture is no longer effective for Democrats — and, McGhee says, can actually backfire.

“Since the Obama era, the racial sorting of voters has included white voters moving to the Democratic Party because of their progressive views on race,” she says. “What holds together the progressive coalition is, yes, obviously, a sense that government can — and needs to — be a force for good and address our big crises. But also the coalition … thinks we have to talk about race, and doesn’t want to see politicians without the courage to address these obvious inequalities head-on.”

In this way, while the Biden administration’s massive investments in middle-class economic growth have been likened by some to the liberal heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that comparison misses an important difference. The New Deal era was defined by policies that were “either explicitly, as in the housing subsidies, or implicitly, because of segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only,” says McGhee. By contrast, she sees the Biden era as “a massive refilling of the pool of public goods for everyone.”

What explains that change? What shifted in American politics that prodded Democratic leadership to directly address the racial components of economic issues? And what’s the hidden history that led to the disinvestment in public goods just as Black Americans began to be included in what America saw as the “public”? To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with McGhee. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about swimming pools. It’s a vivid metaphor you use in your book, and a history I was unfamiliar with. Can you explain the significance of public swimming pools?

Heather McGhee: In the 1930s and ’40s, the country went on a building boom of public amenities — public libraries, parks, schools and swimming pools. But these weren’t normal swimming pools. These were grand, resort-style pools that could, in many instances, hold thousands of swimmers.

In many ways, it was emblematic of a larger ethos at that time: that it was a government’s job to ensure a higher and higher standard of living for its people. You saw that in the New Deal-era social contract, which included massive subsidies for housing, high labor standards, wage floors, the GI Bill — which put a generation of men into homeownership and into college and the professional ranks. And all of that was either explicitly, as in the housing subsidies, or implicitly, because of segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only. These massive public investments created the great American middle class on pretty much a whites-only basis.

Public swimming pools were also often segregated. And in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when Black families began to successfully advocate [for integration], saying that their tax dollars had paid for these public pools and they wanted their children to be able to swim in them, too, many cities across the country opted to drain their public swimming pools rather than integrate them.

That meant that white families lost out on a public good they had cherished. It meant that the entire community lost out on a public space and a commons that could foster social cohesion. It meant that white families with enough money started to build their own backyard swimming pools — that’s when we really began to see that phenomenon in the suburbs — and these membership-only, private swim clubs popped up all across the country. Black families often had to go without — and so did the white families who couldn’t afford it when what was once a public good became a private luxury.

The drained swimming pool is a metaphor for what has happened throughout our economy, as what was once a public commitment to a high standard of life was traded away, and there was a withdrawal of public support for the kinds of economic investments that would create a diverse middle class. In many ways, because of racism, the majority of white Americans turned their backs on the formula that created the middle class.

Part of your idea is that, historically, as people of color became included in the idea of the “public,” that “public goods” became less popular among white Americans and certainly easier to attack as a political issue. Do you think that’s what’s happening right now, with the wave of voting restrictions that seem aimed at ensuring fewer Black people are able to vote?

Yeah. I open up the book saying, “Why is it that Americans can’t seem to have nice things?” And, to a large extent, racism is the answer. My “nice things” isn’t, you know, laundry that can do itself; it’s health care and childcare and well-funded, reliable modern infrastructure, high-speed rail, universal broadband — the list goes on. A guaranteed right to vote and a functioning representative democracy are on that list, too.

The Founders left holes in the bedrock of our democracy to leave room for slavery. From its founding, there was a tension in this country between the revolutionary ideals of self-governance and the compromises and limitations a white elite forced on our democracy. Elites have attacked the foundations of our democracy time and again in ways that always hit their target, often with surgical precision aimed at erecting hurdles to Black political power. But they’re blunt instruments, and often impact young voters, working- and middle-class white voters, senior voters — anyone who doesn’t have endless time and resources to devote to the act of voting.

On the issue of photo ID requirements: Yes, Black and brown people are twice as likely as white people not to have photo IDs, but among certain parts of the white population, it’s neck and neck. Young adults who are white, white adults making less than $25,000 a year have much higher rates of not having photo IDs [than more affluent white people]. It’s not just about the money and time [needed to get a photo ID]; it’s also about often needing to find birth certificates. There are Kafkaesque stories about how challenging and often impossible it can be for people who have voted all their lives to find the proper documentation to get the kind of ID that politicians find acceptable [in order to vote]. Millions of Americans are not protected when a party elite that is worried about their competitive chances in a real election turns to rigging the rules to make sure that fewer eligible citizens can vote.

In my book, I write about the story of Colfax, Louisiana — one of the largest racist massacres in American history, when a white mob attacked a courthouse where election results were being certified and Black neighbors had stood to try to protect [the vote certification]. More than 100 [Black Americans] were slaughtered, and this white mob burned the courthouse to the ground. In refusing to submit to a multiracial democracy, they were willing to burn the edifice of their own government to the ground.

That is the story of January 6. It is the expected result of lies about election fraud that diminish the legitimacy of Black and brown people voting, and that are based on a sense that both whoever wins the majority of the white vote is the legitimate president, and that Black and brown people are so inveterately criminal that they must be breaking the law by exercising their democratic rights.

On the center-left, there’s long been an idea that “color-blind” messaging is more effective — that progressives have more political success if they can forge a coalition that includes white voters who might otherwise be turned off by a message that more explicitly addresses racism. You think that’s wrong, not just ideologically, but strategically. Why?

We conducted a massive research project that, in its early years, was housed at Demos, called the Race-Class Narrative Project, which tested this proposition: Can a Trumpist, racially scapegoating message beat an early [Bernie] Sanders-style, color-blind economic populist message? And the answer was “no” — and that was often true with surprising segments of the population, like union members. But when you took the color-blind economic populist message and wove in a race-forward calling out of racial scapegoating — [and did so] in a way that explained how racism was a tool of the elites who were making life harder for everyone by breaking the rules — that won far more durable support, well into independents and many base Republicans. And it had the added advantage of being true.

Do you see a change in the willingness of white political leaders in the “establishment left” — for lack of a better term — to publicly address race and the racial component of issues head-on?

Absolutely. In his first speech on race as president, President Biden explicitly called out the “zero-sum” [narrative]. I’m looking at it right now. He said, “For too long, we’ve allowed a narrow, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester. We’ve bought the view that America is a zero-sum game in many cases: ‘If you succeed, I fail.’ ‘If you get ahead, I fall behind.’ ‘If you get the job, I lose mine.’ Maybe worst of all, ‘If I hold you down, I lift myself up.’”

Calling out that we are all on the same team and that racism is holding the entire country back is groundbreaking for a U.S. president. The president was saying that this is a core story of America that is different from and at odds with many of our more celebrated narratives about equality and liberty and opportunity. That was a breakthrough.

Why do you think that “breakthrough” is happening now?

I think it’s happening now because we are seven years into the largest social movement in American history: Black Lives Matter. Just this past summer, you had 26-plus million people taking action. I think it’s happening because cross-racial movements like the Fight for $15 [a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour] are changing the conversation around our economy.

And I think it’s happening because the future of this country is a broad, multiracial, anti-racist majority, and Democratic politicians see that, since the Obama era, the racial sorting of voters has included white voters moving to the Democratic Party because of their progressive views on race. And therefore, what holds together the progressive coalition is, yes, obviously, a sense that government can — and needs to — be a force for good and address our big crises. But also the coalition that elects Democrats is one that thinks we have to talk about race and doesn’t want to see politicians without the courage to address these obvious inequalities head-on.

Speaking of political coalitions, how do you make sense of Trump’s gains with Latino men and with Black men in the 2020 election?

I think it’s important to unpack that, and I also think it’s a little bit overstated, in the sense that white people are still the only people for whom a majority voted for Trump.

In an economy that is as brutally hierarchical as the American economy — where, when you’re at the bottom of that economic ladder, a broken carburetor can lead you to getting evicted, which can lead you to losing your children — a political message that offers you a higher rung on that ladder, even if it’s psychological and not material, can be appealing. That psychological offer of being placed higher up on a status hierarchy — higher than immigrants, higher than women, higher than a certain kind of Black person, higher than a certain kind of Latino — can be appealing.

After four years of a man who styled himself as “the winner” in all things and [offered] for people to be “winners” like him — in a society where being a “loser” means possibly losing everything — it’s not surprising that appeal could be effective with not just white Americans who’ve had generations of that story, but also some, particularly male, Black and brown folks who want to see themselves elevated.

Politics is about storytelling. Everything individuals and groups believe comes from the stories we’ve been told. That’s the relationship between belief and politics: It travels through story. Politicians can be some of the most powerful storytellers in our society, and they tell a story about us — who we are, who belongs, who’s against me, who’s with me.

We’re in a moment where a substantial majority of the public seems to support major governmental spending — which is quite different from the “small-government” era that has long defined U.S. politics. What changed?

We are 50 years into an era of rising inequality and economic insecurity for most families. Even before the pandemic, the richest 1 percent owned as much wealth as the middle class, and 40 percent of adult workers were paid too little to meet their basic needs. The answer that the right wing has — trusting the market to solve our problems, which really means trusting rich, powerful players in the market to solve our problems — seems pretty bankrupt now to most Americans.

The [Biden administration’s] American Rescue Plan had supermajority support among the public, and breaks from a multigenerational neoliberal consensus that we should cut taxes, restrain spending in service of low inflation and leave economic security up to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. I consider [it] to be a massive refilling of the pool of public goods for everyone. It will cut child poverty in half — which reminds us that poverty was a choice. It expresses an ethos that we need to invest in ourselves again.

It has something for every American, and yet you saw Republicans respond with a zero-sum political story.

You’ve mentioned that “zero-sum” narrative a few times. Can you explain what you mean by it?

The “zero-sum” narrative is that progress for people of color comes at the expense of white people, and that white voters should resent aid to immigrants and people of color, and resent any collective benefits or action that puts [white people] on the same team as people of color and immigrants.

You see it in the rush to the U.S.-Mexico border and the theatrics around an immigration crisis. You had Republicans who explicitly said, “I’m not voting for this [American Rescue Plan] bill because Joe Biden is opening the border and not opening our schools. How is that taking care of our children?” That was basically their response to a desperately needed, overwhelmingly popular bill to take care of America’s needs.

You [see it in] Fox News leading with false claims that Democrats are “canceling” Dr. Seuss for being too racist — which seemed to many political commentators to be a silly distraction, and yet they’re missing how that is communicating to the Fox News audience that Democrats are on the “other” side of a zero-sum racial struggle and will cancel you, your culture and the things you love in favor of some undeserving minority.

In your book, you write that “white people are the most segregated people in America.” That’s an inversion of the way that we often think about segregation — which is that people of color are the ones being segregated, not white people. Why was that distinction important to you?

The project of The Sum of Us is to expand the aperture of how we think about the costs of racism. Often, when we consider the costs of policies to deal with the mess that racism has made in many aspects of American life, we think about the costs of the change — not what we’re paying in the status quo.

Taking as a norm that we should just measure the costs of integration feels like a massively incomplete way to do a cost-benefit analysis. You should think about the costs of segregation to us now — to all of us. Because otherwise, we’re just reaffirming the zero-sum: We’re saying white people benefit from the system that they currently have, where they are most likely to live in 75 percent white neighborhoods, and anything we do to change that is going to be a cost to white people and a benefit to people of color. Not only is that a bad political message; it’s also not true.

You note that if you poll white Americans about the housing market, most will say they want to live in racially integrated communities. And yet, they don’t. What explains that gap?

This is based on some great research from Maria Krysan at the University of Illinois that showed a video of totally identical neighborhoods to white and Black prospective homebuyers. Then they changed the actors who were walking on the street [in the video]. And it became clear that the presence of Black people — with no other change to the neighborhood — made white homebuyers rate the neighborhoods lower on the desirability scale. What explains that? Massive anti-Black stereotypes.

Most white Americans don’t know the story of redlining, don’t know the story of the interstate highway system razing flourishing Black communities, don’t know the story of strategic disinvestment and urban renewal. They don’t know any of those stories, so they naturalize the disparities they see.

You see “color-blindness” as well-intentioned, but as something that, in retrospect, perpetuated problems by encouraging people to ignore racial disparities. Do you see any prevailing anti-racist postures today that could, while similarly well-intentioned, create unintended long-term problems?

White Americans’ racial literacy has been so low for so long that I welcome most, if not all, discourse that un-blinkers white Americans from the facts of the racism in this country. I’m encouraged by the increasing audience for books and documentaries and even leaders explaining the very recent history to people who should have it — it’s all of our birthrights as Americans. We should know own our history, and I think it’s been stolen from us in a way. By no means am I kicking anybody out of the anti-racist garden party. [Laughs]

You’ve expressed an unease about the way “trust Black women” has become fashionable thing to say among folks on the left. Tell me about that.

Well, my initial unease was that by suggesting there’s some sort of innate “magic” within us, it suggests a biological basis for race, which is inaccurate. You should never trust anybody who wants to create a biological explanation for certain traits — even if they’re positive — because the negative one can follow soon after. [Laughs] You know? “We’re so ‘magical’ that we shouldn’t be allowed to compete in sports,” or whatever.

I am wary of essentializing any traits. But I do believe that people whose social condition puts them at the bottom of a hierarchy are in the best position to see the whole system and see who is harmed by it and how it should be fixed. It’s not about biology; it’s about what living at the intersections of racism, sexism and greed have shown women of color.

Over the past year especially, there’s been a boom in books about anti-racism. Do find it emotionally draining to have to talk and think about racism so much?

Not yet. [Pause] We have a lot of work to do. I want this country to live up to its potential. I want us to refill the pool of public goods for everyone. I want the light of the American dream to be turned back on for everyone. And I don’t want to go back to a whites-only middle class; I want to see the incredible human capacity within each and every person invested in. And you can’t get there without realizing the way that racism has held the pen as we’ve written so many laws in this country.

Racism in our politics is holding us back from the smart public investments that we need. People have joked that if we had to build the Hoover Dam or put a man on the moon today, we never would. “Public goods” were popular among white Americans as long as “the public” was seen as “good.” And today we have this false worship of all things private, which has stymied what we’ve known in this country for over a century to be the formula for widely shared prosperity and innovation: sound public investments and investing in your people, who are your greatest asset.

Racism in our politics and policymaking has created inequalities and under-investments in a more diverse public. That has a cost for almost everyone. “The People” in “We the People” is meant to include all of us.

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