How Politicians Divide, Conquer, and Confuse American Workers Based on Race

“Artificial divides” among American workers based on racial fears worsen everyone’s prospects.

AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file

Since the 1960s, American workers have been subjected to a steady drumbeat of political messages designed to divide them by race and class, resulting in a dramatic weakening of bargaining power and job security. That is the conclusion of an analysis of nearly 50 years worth of political and economics data by Ian Haney López, Boalt Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley.

During a recent panel discussion at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., López presented the findings in a report, “Race and Economic Jeopardy for All,” an extended excerpt of his 2014 nonfiction book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford University Press).

On a range of workforce issues, including wage levels, economic mobility, job security, and health and pension benefits, American workers have been losing ground for the past 50 years, said Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO. Growing concern among labor leaders that Republican presidential candidates including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are seeking to deepen “artificial divides” among American workers based on racial fears and class insecurity led Trumka to invite López to develop the report and participate in the panel.

“When we are artificially divided, ... we lose,” Trumka said. “The labor movement is not big enough to [counteract] negative messages alone, which is why we’ve been reaching out to political progressives, civil-rights organizations, environmental groups, and others.”

In addition, Trumka told the gathering that AFL CIO organizers have been engaging in fact-finding excursions around the nation, “door-knocking” to survey voters on political attitudes in advance of the presidential primaries.

Of particular interest, Trumka said, are respondents’ opinions about Republican front-runner Donald Trump. López’s findings point toward the relative popularity of political messages such as those espoused by Trump and some other conservative-leaning candidates nationally and in the states that cite immigration as a leading cause of erosion of job opportunities for native-born Americans.

A virulent form of scapegoat message framing dating back to the 1960s has returned to national politics, López said. In the 1960s, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and Democratic Alabama Gov. George Wallace invoked “coded” or “dog-whistle” language to paint a picture of black and Latino Americans using government programs to avoid “hard work,” and undermining job prospects for whites. Similar references are now front and center, López said, and working-class Americans across the ethnic spectrum are at risk of being “seduced” by the anger that such messages engender.

“We need to talk about racism as a structuring force that hijacks our politics and the economy,” López said.

Nationwide, union membership has steadily declined since the late 1970s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, a fifth of all American workers belonged to unions, but by 2014, the rate had declined to 11.1 percent. According to López, a divide-and-conquer approach used by some conservative politicians also attacks the two institutions best positioned to aid all American workers in achieving improved economic prospects: Government social and economic-development programs, and unions that foster collective bargaining for workers contending with increasingly powerful corporations.

He said that Democrats, too, have not been entirely immune from engaging in at least a watered-down version of racial and class-based political “dog-whistle" messaging in order to appeal to moderates and working-class white voters over the years. “Bill Clinton campaigned and won on the following themes: ending welfare as a way of life; cracking down on crime, and cracking down on government spending,” López wrote.

By “imitating” the Republicans’ form of “racial political messaging,” Clinton won the presidency twice, but also succeeded in making the American electorate more “racially anxious,” in addition to ushering the era of mass incarceration and weakening government-funded social services at the same time that corporations were receiving major tax breaks and moving enterprises overseas.

Among potential solutions most likely to be effective at restoring workers’ rights and improving employment prospects are coalition-building and educational initiatives that provide clear, concise data and facts about wage issues, right-to-work rules, and income inequality, said Trumka.

Part of the union’s strategy is to show white voters that when wages of African Americans, Latinos, and other historically underserved populations are suppressed, it makes it easier for employers to stick to lower rates of pay for white workers, too.

Say It columns are works of opinion that reflect the writer's viewpoint as supported by evidence. They do not represent the opinions of Next America, its parent company, or affiliates.