How Can Democrats Connect ‘Identity Politics’ to Economics?

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Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There are unprecedented numbers of non–white men running for office in 2018, many more making plans to run in 2020 and beyond. We know on one level that making significant political change — having a real impact on who wields what kind of power in the country — is not just about individual candidates and not just about their racial and gendered identities. It’s about systems, rules, institutions. Changing those rules isn’t just about electing different kinds of individual people. At the same time, it’s also true that for much of our history we’ve mostly and most frequently elected a certain kind of person — the white male kind — and that that itself is one of the systems, one of the rules — the kind that used to be written, but still exists, just more invisibly — that has governed how power is distributed in America.

“I always point to Virginia in 2017,” said Felicia Wong, the head of the Roosevelt Institute, the New York–based think tank built around the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, “where very diverse candidates ran on kitchen-table issues.” Danica Roem, the transgender candidate who beat the author of a trans-phobic bathroom bill has gotten much of the media attention, but Wong points also to Elizabeth Guzman, who along with Hala Ayala became the first Latina women ever elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and who ran a campaign focusing on higher wages, expanded funding for early education, health care, and mental health programs. Better acknowledgment that all these fights are not just tied to identity — not just “women’s issues,” for example — should lead to better political coalition building, Wong argues. “Democrats need to figure out how to combine issues linked to gender, race, and immigration — identity politics — into a more coherent economic framework that reduces the sense that one group wins at another group’s expense,” she said.

It’s just this effort — to make explicit how identity issues are economic issues and that economic issues are tied to identity — that is behind the Roosevelt Institute’s book The Hidden Rules of Race. Published at the end of 2017, it is a follow-up to Roosevelt Institute economist Joseph Stiglitz’s 2015 book on widening economic inequality in America, Rewriting the Rules. In the wake of the 2016 election, the Roosevelt Institute’s team wanted to return to the question of economic injustice, this time applying a racial (and gendered) lens to the questions of how American disparities have been built and why they thrive. The Hidden Rules of Race takes issue with universalist economic fixes alone as progressive panacea, instead examining the web of often invisible racialized and gendered obstacles to opportunity faced by millions of Americans, obstacles with roots as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, which prompted the calcifying of the racial caste system of slavery, the institution on which the country’s economy, politics, and infrastructure were built.

I sat down with Wong, along with Institute fellows Dorian Warren and Andrea Flynn, three of the authors of Rewriting the Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy, to talk about what our contemporary political and economic analysis misses, how America’s racial legacy continues to distort our present and future, and … a little bit, about some hope for the future.

Rebecca Traister: Who is this book for?

Felicia Wong: We were writing this in particular for two versions of white progressives. The first is white neoliberal trickle down–light 1990s folks who believed that privileging the capital markets was going to strengthen our economy. The other version of progressive we were writing for was literally ourselves: white progressives who are worker aligned. Bernie Sanders is one of those people; he’s not the only person, but in the 2016 race he was regularly seen as somebody who had a class analysis and not a race analysis. We wanted to say: You must have both. The class analysis is essential. But on top of it you also have to look at the 350-year history of racial rules, some of which are really obvious — like school segregation rules or Jim Crow voting laws — and some of which are not obvious, and have to do with tax code and anti-trust and corporate-consolidation stuff. So in a sense we were talking to ourselves.

Andrea Flynn: When Rewriting the Rules came out, the Black Lives Matter movement and attention around the death of black Americans at the hands of police was happening on a parallel track to the economic-populist, Bernie conversations. What we saw was that the racial justice advocates were good at talking about how economic forces were helping to drive their circumstances but the political class was not doing a very good job connecting to that other conversation. We were hoping to build that bridge.

Why is it that Black Lives Matter has a class analysis but that not all left economic progressivism has a race analysis?

Dorian Warren: You can go back 200 years, and there’s always been at least a race and class and sometimes gender analysis in black communities. If you read Dona Cooper Hamilton and Charles Hamilton’s The Dual Agenda, it tracks the dual agendas around economic and racial justice for the entire 20th century. It’s always been there; it’s just no one’s been paying attention.

FW: The conversation is markedly different now because most of the rules are in fact hidden. We’ve gone from de jure segregation rules —where we saw whites-only water fountains and whites-only lunch counters, where you could not avoid seeing racial rules — to now, when I think it’s much harder to see the racialized roots of all of our segregated but unequal outcomes. People do see literal, physical segregation in our neighborhoods or our schools, but the story many, predominantly white, people then tell themselves to explain it is a story of individual deficits, of a culture of poverty, of bad family structure, single moms. It’s very easy to tell yourself a deficit story rather than about how this has been structured for 350 years.

Those deficit stories are loudest from the right, but there’s a degree to which it happened in postelection analysis from the left, in calls to walk away from identity politics, because they can be alienating …

FW: The idea that leaning into a race and gender analysis is alienating assumes we are alienating the 70,000 white Trump voters who won the election. And look, it’s important to have an upper Midwest strategy, but I’m not sure that that upper Midwest electoral strategy should solely focus on Trump voters. I think you have to look at the tens of millions of black, brown, and young people who totally sat out this election. To not talk about race is really alienating to a whole segment of people who are really important Americans, and voters.

DW: The question — is it identity politics or is it class — is very thin analytically. Because it implies that class is not an identity and it centers white male working-class identity as universal. It erases working-class people of color because no one asks, “Well, how do these [nonwhite] working-class people know how to vote their so-called self interest? Why can’t white working-class people figure it out when all these black and Latino and Asian working-class people can?” But that’s also in some ways a distraction because what we don’t get to are the rules. So you take Wisconsin, where up to 44,000 in the state were disenfranchised or discouraged from voting by voter-ID laws. Clinton only lost the state by 22,000.

Why was so little attention paid to disenfranchisement postelection?

DW: Well, Democratic consultants don’t get paid to focus on structural issues. I can get paid if I do a poll for you and tell you how to appeal to white working voters. It’s not as sexy to say “change the voting rules in a state.”

Plus, the class of consultants and journalists who do political analysis are at a remove from the reality that ID itself is something millions of people don’t have, that it’s hard to get, that certain populations don’t trust government, don’t have bank accounts, that this seemingly simple thing —having an ID — is an insurmountable burden for many. Which brings us to the nut of your book. You write that, “A dollar of income in black hands buys less safety, less health, less wealth, and less education than a dollar in white hands.” Can you each offer an example of how and why this is true?

AF: We talk about how even women at higher income levels have more health disparities, and black women at all income and education levels have higher rates of maternal morbidity and mortality than do white women of lower income levels. Yes, we should work to raise incomes, and get paid family leave and paid sick days. But data show us that there’s something else going on. Because even people who have those things are still experiencing inequities that don’t make sense if you’re only thinking through an economic lens; it’s a big messy web, all the rules are interlocking: the history of racial discrimination and mistreatment in health care creates a distrust, in many communities of color, for the medical Establishment; then there’s the fact that many communities of color are more likely to not have coverage — a big swath of the South where they didn’t expand Medicaid and many women of color are left out; that has a huge impact on access and therefore on health outcomes. The rolling back of abortion access and family planning access — Texas has closed 82 or more family-planning clinics in the past five years and the people who rely on that safety net are disproportionately women of color. Another layer that’s important and invisible is toxic stress: the collective toll of these rules and of broader, cultural, pervasive racism has a deep impact on bodies, not only on women but on the babies that they bring into this world and on future generations.

DW: We are sitting here literally in the Roosevelt Institute. And grappling with the internal tensions of how we are promoters of the New Deal but [also want to address] the racial and gender exclusions in the New Deal that are still with us today. One example is domestic workers, who 100 years ago were almost all black women. And domestic workers are excluded from New Deal progressive economic legislation — the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act. That was an explicit choice; it was an occupational exclusion [targeted at] black women and black workers. And it had consequences that are still with us today.

FW: It’s harder even now for domestic workers to organize.

DW: They’re not protected by the minimum wage in most places. And even if a rule was written intentionally to exclude black women, the unintended consequences are that it affects mostly immigrant women of color today. And poor people of all kinds. I was in Ohio earlier this year, talking to organizers who told me that the highest rates of incarceration are white rural women who are using heroin and opioids. That’s because drug-sentencing rules, mandatory minimums, written primarily for black people in the ’80s, are now affecting working-class white women: these were all racial rules, with racial motivations behind them. But now they’re affecting white people too. One of the lessons of the book is that racial rules don’t just affect people of color; they hurt white people too.

FW: One example of how race and economic outcomes intersect is what we know about both the bad effects of school segregation and the positive effects of school desegregation. You see unbelievable positive outcomes from desegregation: educational attainment — you’re much more likely to have graduated from high school and gone on to higher ed if you went to a desegregated school — but you also see health effects; subjects who went to desegregated schools are likely to have the health of someone who was seven years younger than subjects who went to a segregated school. You see criminal-justice and safety effects and you see labor-market and wage effects — a 15 percent wage increase for people who went to a desegregated school. So why is this? Is this like black kids need to sit next to white kids to get a better education? No. What you see are that desegregated schools are schools where teachers are paid more, that have higher budgets, where administrators have experience. You have to look at the structure of the school to understand the positive outcomes. It’s not the simplistic view of white kids sitting next to black kids to bring the average up. It’s that once white kids are at a school, politicians pay attention, make sure teachers are there, make sure they’re paid well. All this happens in schools where white kids go!

DW: It’s like redistributing the value of whiteness to people of color.

FW: I struggle with schools as the avatar of this entire thing. Because of course schools are tangible, real civic institutions — pretty much the only civic institutions we have left. And they’re the thing that every American has an experience with. So on the one hand they’re a perfect exemplar of larger, under-the-surface web of rules we’re talking about. But on the other hand schools are the obvious thing, unlike tax policy and banking policy and all this other stuff that seems technocratic but also has deep inequality effects.

Okay, so how about we talk about the stuff that’s harder to communicate to a lay audience …

AF: I want to talk about wealth. We talk about income as sort of the problem solver. But actually you can equalize incomes, you can equalize education, and that actually won’t get you to equalizing wealth. The ability of families to pass wealth down from one generation to another has driven these massive economic inequities. So even if you’re making more money, if you don’t have any wealth, you can’t capitalize on that income as much as you might be able to. You might not be able to start a business, might not be able to invest in education. It requires savings and a cushion to do this.

Which is part of how everything starting with slave profits to mid-century housing policy reverberates now, right? If your great-grandfather could buy a house in 1945, that has an impact on your economic status in 2017.

FW: Yes, and I do think that’s why Ta-Nehisi Coates focused so much in his original reparations piece on mortgages and home ownership.

AF: I come out of a single-parent home; my mother is a waitress, I grew up in a quintessential white working-class home. When we were writing this book I thought: What were our lifelines that made it different for me than for a family of color? Everyone in my family owned a house. My grandparents owned houses that they were then able to leverage to help my family, to help my mom through difficult years. There were mechanisms that allowed my grandparents and great-grandparents to own homes in ways that other families in other communities wouldn’t have had access to.

What about some of the anti-trust stuff?

FW: Anti-trust is a super-hot topic these days, but also seems abstract and technocratic. But across almost every piece of the economy — the health sector, the banking sector, the airline industry — you’ve seen more and more corporate concentration. In every sector of the economy you’re seeing fewer and fewer companies as incumbents. And they are squeezing out new businesses and squeezing out the growth of innovation at medium-sized businesses. So there is a kind of sclerosis of the economy at the top and fewer and fewer corporate structures controlling more and more. Why is this important to our race lens? Because you see fewer black and brown Americans and women in ownership and executive positions; they just don’t have the opportunity because there are fewer corporate strongholds. Look at the Fortune 500 list; it really is white men, almost exclusively. If you’re gonna be all-American about the importance of healthy capitalism, it is not healthy to see this kind of corporate concentration at the top.

This is also a rules story, because the reason you see so much corporate concentration is because you saw a relaxation of all of the merger rules starting in about 1980, starting with the Bork Doctrine, which said all you should really look at when you judge whether a company should be allowed to either merge or grow bigger is whether there is a price effect on the consumer. What was ignored was what that merger would do to wages, to the structure of the whole market, and whether new businesses would be able to start. It’s a very narrow consumer-focused lens that ostensibly is supposed to be better for the consumer and a new liberal mind-set, but has all these other ancillary effects, including race effects for workers and even executives. If people aren’t owning grocery chains and insurance chains and midsize businesses, they aren’t growing wealth; they become task acceptors, not task definers, in a way that is going to keep them trapped in low-wage work.

I want to ask about some of the contemporary rules we’re seeing rolled back right now: the rollback of Obama’s overtime rule, the rollback of Title IX protections by Betsy DeVos, the back-and-forth over DACA. I’m wondering how these adjustments are likely to be having an impact on workplace participation, on wealth, how — even in the left’s optimistic future, where progressives regain power and fix what’s been broken — we’re going to assess the long-term impact of some of this stuff.

AF: Look at data on immigrant women who are not accessing health care in certain states right now because they’re worried about being deported. What is the long-term implication of going X period of time without accessing health care?

Implications that have long-term economic consequences over generations.

AF: Right. Maybe it means you’re having children you weren’t planning on having, maybe it means you are not addressing a chronic or, God forbid, terminal condition. It definitely affects your ability to take care of your family or participate in the workforce.

DW: It’s really interesting that you put those three things together: overtime rules, DACA, and Title IX, because those three together were the second-best options over the last few years. Because we couldn’t regulate through formal law each of those areas — sexual assault on campus, overtime, or immigration policy — the second-best thing we fought for and won were administrative rule changes. Which are still rules! But they weren’t institutionalized in the same way. And when we lost [snaps fingers], they go like that.

Political scientists call this the second face of power: preventing people from doing something, the veto power. They veto our proposals so we have to fight for the second- or third-best thing.

FW: Another thing about the long-term effects of this period: the people who write the rules really matter. It’s not just policies; institutions are made of people. Strong institutions staffed by people who know what they’re doing and can work with other human beings matter. And the vacuum you’re seeing in all the federal agencies right now … It’s going to take Democrats, even if they are able to take power again, I don’t know how long, just to re-staff these institutions. The last year has been so overwhelming that I don’t think we’ve spent enough time thinking about this. We try to trace the effects of school desegregation policy or health policy through a hundred years of history; we shouldn’t ignore the fact that whatever’s happening right now is going to have an impact on our grandkids.

But I also want to talk about solutions. Because the panoply of bad we’ve talked about can sometimes obscure the fact that we have had advancements in our politics and in our culture. The first reconstruction was of course short-lived, but the civil-rights movement had long-term effects, some of which I addressed when I talked about desegregation as microcosm. That was a changing of the way we think about norms and rights. And there were material benefits for people of color: Incomes really did go up during and after the civil-rights movement. You see pushback, but we’ve also seen advancement. I would argue that the things we need to be able to bring together in this moment in order to have real advancement are basically the things the left has become a circular firing squad around right now: The first thing we have to do is be willing, able, and proud to talk about race, full stop. Number two, we can’t throw structural economic analysis out with the bathwater; so it’s really important to attend to whatever Elizabeth Warren and her ilk would say are a set of corrections around the economy, banking, and financial systems; these things really matter and they matter for people of color. Then the third thing I’d say is that we have to put them together in solutions that are able to recognize both. We can get to universal solutions that also have targeted remedies within them.

Take infrastructure; everybody wants to invest in roads and bridges and airports. Even the environmentalists and the labor folks can come together on some of this stuff. But when we do it, we ought to make sure to target those neighborhoods that have been historically excluded: that’s black and brown neighborhoods, and rural communities that are predominantly white. The justification for targeting those communities comes when you look at inner cities where manufacturing and other private-sector businesses left first, and where you also often were denied maintenance, mortgages, or federal subsidies, so you see even more physical crumbling. We have to look at places that have been systematically denied by our rules, so the argument is race-focused and also on people who have been systematically denied opportunity. I do think that there are ways to solve these problems, but the first thing to do is to have enough guts to look them in the face.

DW: On targeted universalism, [allocating investments based on] Zip Codes are a really great way to bring together poor white people and poor black and brown people. Because disinvestment has occurred both in rural places and in inner cities. So if you use that in a formula about where infrastructure dollars go you can create a different kind of coalition that could be multiracial and working-class and poor people. So it’s a nerdy policy thing but it has political implications for policy design that can get a winning coalition to agree to it.

AF: Justice doesn’t trickle down. Investing in white working-class communities is not going to trickle down to racially marginalized communities, but actually, if you could invest in communities that have been historically marginalized — and the Zip Code example is a good one — I think it would trickle up and create investment in other communities as well.

DW: We do fundamentally believe who writes the rules matter. So in previous instances, where we have created racially or gender-inclusive rules it’s been because those most affected have been in power at the time.

So you believe in the power of representation?

DW: I believe social movements matter more than representation. I believe that social movements then lead to representation. One could argue that the big changes in this country have always been some result of social movements taking hold of the political system and either reforming it or seizing it or capturing it.

How Can Democrats Connect ‘Identity Politics’ to Economics?