The Uphill Battle of the Race/Class Narrative

The race/class narrative promises to unify the 99%. But can it overcome the pull of the "American Dream"?

The Uphill Battle of the Race/Class Narrative
Photo by Tom Rumble / Unsplash

I've been diving into the role of narratives in social change by exploring the work of Ian Haney López (author of Dog Whistle Politics and leading voice on the race/class narrative). It might feel easier for those of us in the business of social change to launch programs and start organizations, but there are few things as effective as shaping broad narratives that influence contemporary mores, ideas, and policies (historically far-right philanthropy has done a better job of understanding this than progressive philanthropy).

López suggests that our groupishness is wrongly oriented. Much of the anti-racism movement has been about the group of White people and the group of People of Color. He argues that simply looking at these racial groups is not enough; instead of pitting POCs against White people, he advocates for creating a multiracial coalition united in addressing economic inequality. It's a populist narrative anchored in the belief that the real cleavage is not between racial groups, but rather between the White rich and the multiracial rest, and we need to unite our movement along this vertical race/class axis as opposed to a more horizontal race-only axis. His work dovetails with Heather McGhee's book on the cost of racism to everyone in The Sum of Us, and with Alicia Garza's encouragement for multiracial coalitions in The Purpose of Power.

But shifting from horizontal groupishness to vertical groupishness is not easy. This race/class narrative faces another, countervailing narrative in America about the American Dream and the desire of so many low, middle, and high-income folks to one day become economically mobile and become rich(er). López wants to paint the rich as the people who are taking advantage of this multiracial lower and middle class and rigging the system, but deep down, many people aspire to be rich, which leads me to wonder if the biggest challenge to this economic populist wide-tent narrative is another narrative around aspirational economic mobility. How likely are we to unify against the wealthy if we’re secretly holding out hope that one day that could be us? (This aspirational “American Dream” narrative was one reason (among many) why low-income White folks voted against their own interests and for Trump). The most nuanced narratives might be the most accurate, but the adoption of any narrative is inversely proportional to its level of nuance.