Is Trump's Blatant Racism an Opportunity to Build Class Solidarity?

Posted May 11, 2016

MP3 Interview with Ian Haney López, John H. Boalt professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted by Scott Harris


Billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump – now the presumptive Republican party presidential candidate – has since he launched his campaign consistently employed racist, xenophobic and misogynist rhetoric to fire up a base made up mostly of white, middle-aged men. He has attacked Mexicans as rapists and murderers, advocated a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. and insulted women based on sexist stereotypes.

As a result, Trump will be entering the general election campaign with highly unfavorable views among many different constituency groups. He has a 70 percent unfavorable image among women, 86 percent from black voters and 75 percent from Latinos according to recent polls.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Ian Haney López, John H. Boalt professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the book, "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class." Here, López examines the role racial prejudice and economic insecurity has played in drawing supporters to Trump's campaign and the opportunities in the 2016 election to build support for a progressive economic agenda. [Rush transcript]

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: We're not saying that all of Trump's supporters are racists in that "hate every black person, put on a robe and burn a cross" sort of way – which is not to say that they're not out there. This is a candidate who has attracted endorsements from former Klan wizard David Duke and other white nationalists. So there are some of the people who rally behind Trump who are these out-and-out bigot, racist types. But that's not what we're talking about.

For the most part, what we're talking about is a sort of pervasive, racial fear that predominates among a significant segment of the white population and it is a race through which they see the society and through which they see politics and the economy. And these are the people that Trump is speaking to. And what's important to realize is that this isn't Trump tapping into some sort of subterranean fears that nobody knew was there. This is instead, Trump taking advantage of groundwork that has been laid by the Republican party for the last 50 years.

And so here, I want to pause and just give some really startling numbers. Who are the GOP supporters today? They draw roughly 93-94 percent of their support from white voters. And 98 percent of their elected officials are white. This is a party that for the last 50 years has constituted itself around a racial narrative that says to Americans, "The biggest threat in your lives come from other poor people of color, it comes from the liberal institutions like unions and like government that support poor people of color, worry about them, hate government, trust instead the big corporations and the very rich." That's the basic narrative the Republicans have been using for 50 years and that's exactly the narrative Trump has tapped into in this latest election cycle.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor López, Reagan, Romney and Trump all have spouted similar rhetoric of a country of makers vs. takers. And from your point of view, how do progressive organizations and politicians counter the conscious strategy to stoke racism and scapegoatism where many working class poor and white citizens end up voting against their own economic self-interest and for the very wealthiest one percent and Wall Street's agenda?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: In the United States, class has been constituted through race, and race functions as a weapon to be used in class struggles. And for progressives to respond, we need a unified story that we can tell to whites and people of color sufficient to get these groups to form a new multi-racial progressive coalition. And that story has to be something like this: It's race that's been used to divide so that we hand over power to the very rich and until all of us commit getting past racism, none of us can hope to restore a country in which people is wielded by the people, rather than by corporations. We need a story that combines a simultaneous emphasis on racial justice and economic justice.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Given that racial prejudice has been part of American culture for so many decades, are you optimistic that we can get to a place where we can down the line, transcend race and bring people together, unify them on these economic issues that have for so long gone in a direction not in the interest of the majority of the American public?

IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: This may be the first moment in the history of the country in which we can say to whites, racism is really bad for you and your children. Up until now, most whites have thought about racism that at best is a moral issue that they need to engage with, but not as something that's fundamental to the well-being of their children. But that's changed. If you are a member of the white working class today, you need to look around and say, "Wow, racism has been devastating for communities of color, but it's been devastating for me, too, because it explains what happened to my job, what happened to my pension, and why my kids' future is more bleak than my own." That's truly revolutionary. For the United States to arrive at a point where everybody in the country, including whites, starts to say racism is bad for all of us, that I think is what's different about 2016, and about 1964. That's what I think makes it possible for us to think, you know, this is the pivot, this is the moment when the whole country turns against racism and begins what must be a decades-long effort to finally get past race as a source of division in order to build a truly progressive, multi-racial coalition.

Read Ian Haney López' article: "Understanding What Makes Donald Trump Voters Tick: Is It Just Racism?,", In These Times, April 7, 2016.

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