Anti-Racist Messaging Is Failing With Voters. So Why Can't Liberals Quit It? | Opinion

If you've spent any time at all listening to progressive messaging lately, you've probably heard countless invocations of race and racism. Democratic elected officials have taken to framing virtually any policy goal they want through the lens of anti-racism.

New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, for instance, sternly warned us that "standardized testing is a pillar of systemic racism." Advocates for student debt relief like the ACLU want us to know that "student debt is a racial justice issue." Climate activists, who historically have talked about their issues in universal terms, have increasingly described their movement through anti-racist language, arguing that it benefits minorities most to battle climate change.

Standardized testing is a pillar of systemic racism.

— Jamaal Bowman (@JamaalBowmanNY) March 2, 2021

The logic behind this racialization of every debate is fairly straightforward: America is an increasingly diverse place and one where increasing numbers of people care deeply about racism and equal opportunity. So why not frame every issue through the lens of racial justice? What can be the harm in talking about how every universal policy especially benefits African Americans or Latinos?

That's a question that Yale University researchers Josh Kalla and Micah English recently explored in a working paper that tested various types of messaging to promote progressive policies. "Political scientists have really been doing this type of research for decades and they've always shown that associating these policies with racial minorities makes people less likely to support them," English told me in an interview. "But given the shift in racial attitudes in the past few years we thought that maybe the story would be different this time around."

English and Kalla took six different policies—increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, forgiving $50,000 in student loan debt, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, upzoning housing, and decriminalizing marijuana and erasing prior convictions—and then asked people if they supported them. But they framed the issues differently to see which rationale was most compelling. To one group, they explicitly emphasized that the policy will benefit a specific racial group or promote racial equity (the "race" frame). To another they spoke about how a policy would promote economic justice or benefit a specific class group (the "class" frame). For a third group, they used both the race and class frame together. And for a final group, they used a neutral frame that explained the policy but made no mention of race or class.

What they found is that the class frame was generally more effective than either the race frame or the race plus class frame. "Despite observed increases in support for racial justice and Democratic elites' use of race and class plus race frames in their public messaging, we find no evidence that Americans are persuaded by these policy frames," they conclude in their paper.

anti-racism messaging is failing with voters
Black Lives Matter activists stand with shields outside of the Columbus Police Headquarters in reaction to the police shooting of Makiyah Bryant on April 20, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. Stephen Zenner/Getty Images

"After this summer, everyone wanted to believe that you know we had this great awakening that everyone now is aware of racial equity and we need to fix it, but I think our results suggest kind of the opposite," English told me.

Part of the reason for this is likely because many voters don't want to support policies that they perceive as benefiting some group other than themselves. As I reported in 2019, research has shown that implicit associations between racial groups and wealth can predict opposition towards helping the poor; if white people stereotype African Americans as poor, they will be more likely to oppose welfare spending because they will see it as benefiting African Americans over themselves.

In other words, it helps to tell voters what's in it for them if you want them to support any particular policy.

But that's not the whole story here. It wasn't just that some white voters were turned off by race-oriented messaging. For African Americans, the only minority group surveyed in high enough numbers to draw a conclusion, the race frame seemed to have no advantage over the class frame.

"Something really important that we found is that the race appeal and the class appeal are about just as effective for Black voters," English told me, speculating that these voters tend to be more pragmatic in their political approach.

Interestingly, English and Kalla did find one group that was slightly receptive to the race framing, but it might not be the one why you expect: It was white Democrats.

It's worth wondering why progressives, particularly white progressives, have become so fixated on racial messaging if there's so little evidence that it actually works to persuade voters to support their policies. Political parties spend mountains of money on survey and focus group work; English and Kalla's paper may be the latest showing how ineffective racial messaging can be, but it certainly isn't the first bit of research to demonstrate that finding.

My guess is that the progressive movement is simply captured by an upper-class elite for whom anti-racism is now an all-dominating philosophy. Sure, it may not persuade your average voter—white or Black or anyone else—to support your political party to frame every message in terms of race, but it probably does impress your social cohort. There's a reason elite prep schools are now embracing critical race theory, while most working-class communities and public schools would find some of its tenets esoteric and unrelatable.

And what this latest study shows is that this elite cohort that runs everything from the major news media to the universities to America's political parties is deeply out of touch, not only with average Americans but perhaps its own political interests. Self-defeating messaging is self-defeating, even if it makes you feel good and impresses people who already agree with you.

There was a time when progressives were not so enthralled by the whims of one social class. They aspired to talk like ordinary people and persuade the vast majority, not the elites who run our universities and corporate HR departments.

Take, for instance, the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Having grown up poor and cut his teeth in the civil rights movement, Jackson has always thought hard about building diverse coalitions and persuading the largest number of people possible to support his positions. Messaging he used during his 1988 bid for the Democratic nomination for the presidency sits with me:

"Most poor people are not lazy. They are not Black. They are not brown. They are mostly white and female and young," he said during a speech at the Democratic convention. "But whether white, Black, or brown, a hungry baby's belly turned inside out is the same color: Color it pain, color it hurt, color it agony."

Rather than argue for the interest of one racial group or another, Jackson was preaching solidarity. He was telling the audience that people of all skin colors should care about hunger, not just because they should care about their fellow man but because they, too, could be one of those hungry people one day. It's that kind of messaging that progressives should use to pass their policies.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast "Extremely Offline."

The views in this article are the author's own.