Please support our programs

The Great Divide: Racism, Wealth Inequality, and Elections

Never miss a show! @ symbol icon Email Signup Spotify Logo Spotify RSS Feed Apple Podcasts


Coronavirus and the precaution of social distancing is on our minds.  Ian Haney Lopez says what we need is social solidarity instead of Trump’s dog whistle politics.

In The Great Divide: Racism, Wealth Inequality, and Elections Acclaimed author Ian Haney López talks about his new book – Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America.  He explores the links between current day wealth and race inequality, elections, and how coded racism has evolved in the Trump era.  He looks at ways we can proactively build cross-racial solidarity to diminish barriers between us.  Professor Ian Haney López holds an endowed chair as the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

Like this program? Please show us the love. Click here and support our non-profit journalism. Thanks!

Image credit: McGeorge School of Law photo via Flickr




  • Ian Haney López: Professor, U.C. Berkeley School of Law


  • Special Thanks to KPFA radio and Ian Haney López

Making Contact Staff:

  • Host: Anita Johnson
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Staff Producers: Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Salima Hamirani
  • Associate Producer: Aysha Choudhary
  • Engagement and Web Manager: Kathryn Styer


  • Audiobinger: The Garden State
  • Blue Dot Sessions: Grand Caravan
  • Lobo Loco: Mystical Beauty
  • Marco Castelli: Martina and the air plan


Anita Johnson:  Today, on Making Contact:

Ian Haney López   …our democracy and our economy, our marketplace… our lives depend on a sense of linked fate.

That is the core insight of democracy. That has been broken, For the last 50 years, we’ve been doing nothing to rebuild it.

Anita Johnson:    As we release this week’s episode, the Corona virus and the precaution of social distancing is on our minds. Health precautions aside for a moment, Ian Haney Lopez says what we need is social solidarity instead of Trump’s dog whistle politics. He says we need institutions that prioritize our shared fate for us, or as Haney Lopez says, build a multi-racial blue wave that completely changes the direction of the United States.

 Ian Haney López:    Over the last 50 years, ever since the civil rights movement, the party of big business, the corporate elites, the economic titans have figured out that they win when they divide us. And how have the rest of us responded?

We’ve responded essentially by saying, yeah, we don’t actually want to be together. Integration? hmm well…. We’re doubtful about it. Sending our kids to those schools with them. I don’t know about that. Workplace conflict. Segregated neighborhoods. White flight. We’ve done all of that. And our liberal institutions: they’ve given up on integration, too. And yet, if I could summarize everything I’ve been saying in one simple slogan,

E Pluribus Unum Out of many one.

Anita Johnson:    Ian Haney Lopez looks at racism, wealth inequality, elections and the need to rebuild our linked fate across race and class divides.His 2019 book is titled Merge Left fuszing Race and Class. Winning Elections and Saving America. He explores how coded racism has evolved in the Trump era and how building cross racial solidarity might neutralize that.

Ian Haney López holds an endowed chair as the Chief Justice Earl Warren, Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ian Haney López:    Yes, we can create a multi-racial blue wave that completely changes the direction of this country and we can do it in 2020. Now we’re not likely to do it because people aren’t really paying attention to what’s actually happening, but we can do it.

Now I say we can do it. And I suspect that many of you are like, no we can’t.

Could we really pull this country together? Could we really create a mass, multi-racial, progressive super majority capable of changing not just who’s in the White House, but who controls Congress, capable of changing the trajectory this country?

So I’m going to start with that sense that, no, we’re skeptical about this and rightly so. So.

Let me set one scene and then I’ll set another.

One scene: I’ve been invited to talk to the state leaders of a trade union. So I’m in a hotel room. It’s in Florida. It’s a large ballroom, windowless air-conditioned. The tables have been arranged in a circle. As I look around the circle, I see mainly pretty good sized white men. Now, as people go around and introduce themselves by name, it seems that three of them might be Latino, but they’re pretty fair skinned. I’m really sitting in a room with some of the national leadership in about 50, 47 white men. This is the room.

I have been invited to talk to them about what I’m going to talk to you about. But before I start, they have some business to go through. They start their meeting, this is their national convention by talking about the sort of demographic trends in their union, and they start with some numbers, they say, we’re 92, 93 percent white. 93, 94 percent male where we’re losing members at this rate of thousands per month. Just the start of the presentation is  “the days of this union are numbered. It’s in a way, it’s a dinosaur. It’s almost all white. Almost all male”

And they cannot maintain the union. And then they turn it over to me. And I stand up and I and I say: Is there a racism problem in your unions?

And the crowd kind of laughs and some people –I hear them, they’re not really talking directly to me— I hear some of them say, oh, there’s racism. And I hear others say, but it’s no problem. Right. And there’s clearly some tension. There’s some resistance to my talking to them.


It’s not —I don’t want to promote the idea that these are sort of backwards union guys.– The union national leadership invited me there to their national meeting. It’s a three day meeting and they’ve given me a whole day.

This union is committed to dealing with racism, so it’s not like, oh, this is a story about backwards working class guys-— no nonsense! These guys are on it, or at least the national leadership is. And yet what I suspect is

Well, I think partly it’s, you know, Berkeley law professor. You know, with the soft hands of a writer going to come talk about racism trapped in a room in Florida.

Okay. I think that’s partly it. But here’s the other dynamic.

The other dynamic is that among progressives, virtually every conversation we have about racism is framed in terms of harms to communities of color.

And whites as either not relevant to the conversation— because this about harms to communities of color — or whites as  the problem.

And these union leaders, they don’t want to spend a day on that. But that’s not the talk I intend to give.

In fact, I say let’s start with the civil rights movement. Let’s start in 1964. But let’s start with Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson promising a war on poverty. Lyndon Johnson supporting unions. Lyndon Johnson supporting high taxes. The regulation of the marketplace. The creation of routes of upward mobility. Lyndon Johnson promising to end poverty in a generation. And winning in a landslide. And I say to them, that was the heyday of your union. That was when you were at the strongest. What happened since then? Let me tell you that story.

And I talk about Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party realizing that they could use race to break the New Deal coalition by pulling apart the white working class African-Americans and liberals.

And then I go on to talk to them about the way in which Richard Nixon perfected this with his coded language about the silent majority and law and order. And then I say, but you know, the real culprit, Ronald Reagan, because Ronald Reagan figured out how you could tell a story that was partly about breaking apart African-Americans and whites, partly about racial resentment.

But even more powerfully, it was about hatred towards collective enterprise, be it unions or government. Because Ronald Reagan– you think about was Ronald Reagan’s dog whistle— Ronald Reagan’s dog whistle was welfare queens. That was his leading dog whistle.

OK, well, welfare queens and has a strong element of racial resentment, but it’s also an attack on government. The theme that Reagan would repeat and repeat, repeat is you should resent people of color. They’re lazy or they’re dangerous and violent. They’re criminals. But you should hate government.

Hate government because it coddles people of color with welfare, hate government because it refuses to control them through lax criminal laws and don’t just hate government, hate liberals.

Hate elites and hate your unions, too, because all of those liberals and elites and governments and Democrats and liberals, they really care more about helping dangerous and undeserving people of color than helping you.  The hard working white American, look lars remodeling. That was Reagan’s theme.

And then I said. And now look at the hero of the white working class. Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton comes in and Bill Clinton says, I can’t beat this Republican dog whistling. I’m gonna imitate it.

And when he imitates it, he starts talking about ending welfare as a way of life and cracking down on crime. But that’s not all he does. Once Bill Clinton has turned his back on African-Americans, he needs to turn his back on labor as well. And without African-Americans and without Labor. Bill Clinton starts looking for support for the Democratic Party on Wall Street.

And I say to the union:  between the Republicans and the Democrats for the last 40 years, you’ve had two parties that have been competing to convince you that they will protect you against who? Against the economic elites, against the bosses, against the corporations, no!

They’ve been competing to show who’s better able to protect you against supposedly dangerous people of color. And when your members vote their racial resentment, they destroy your unions.

Now, I’ve walked through all of this history with them. I’ve shown them slides. I’ve shown the videos, I’ve shown them campaign commercials. And then right before lunch, I say to them.

Do you see a future in your union for your children, for your own children, is there a future in your union?

They don’t. And then I say to them.

Do you know what destroyed that future for your children? Racism against black and brown people. Racism against black and brown people is the biggest threat to your white families.

And then we break for lunch and then we come back and the union leaders who’d earlier joked about racism not being a problem and pretended that they didn’t know anything about it.

 Suddenly, they want to have a conversation about how you actually integrate a union and what is implicit bias and what are best practices for bridging a racial divide.

Right. And we’re having a real conversation now. I don’t want to oversell the moment.

I don’t know what actually changed in the union, but I do want to emphasize a very important point here.

To move this union in terms of saving the union itself and in terms of economic policies, we needed to have a conversation about race.

The conversation needed to be about race. OK. You might react by saying you’re telling me that when you went to talk to these leaders of the white working class, you went with a race conversation.

Why didn’t you just go with a class conversation? Isn’t class what’s really driving support for Donald Trump today? It’s the white working class we hear over and over and over again and again and again.  It’s white working class. This is a class issue. These union leaders, they know class analysis.

They their members know class, they understand bosses, they understand corporations, they understand when the rules are rigged, they know class.

They also know, though they don’t say it too much in public, that a majority of their members support Donald Trump.

That’s not class.

And if it were class, if this were a class issue, then what about all the working class people of color? Wouldn’t they be Trump’s supporters too?


This isn’t class. This is race. This is racial resentment. But I want to be careful. I don’t want make too sharp a distinction. This isn’t class versus race.

Very often it’s class through a race lens. It’s people sense of resentment: who’s getting ahead, who wants to make as much as they do. They earned it. They get to protect it. It’s that sort of class through a race lens that explains so much support for Trump.

So bottom line, (hey Bernie Sanders) Bottom line:

If you’re serious about economic populism and organizing the white working class. Start talking about how we overcome racism against black and brown people. That’s the lesson.



Anita Johnson: You’re listening to Ian Haney López, the author of Merge Left Using Race and Class Winning Elections and Saving America –on Making Contact.

This show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US. To find out how to support us, download shows or get our podcast, go to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @making_ contact. Now back to: Ian Haney López discussing racism, wealth inequality, elections and the need to rebuild solidarity across race and class divides.

Professor Ian Haney López   When I say, want to win with the white working class, I mean win big enough to actually change this country’s direction. Class alone is not going to do that. You’re also gonna have to talk to white folks about overcoming racism against black and brown people. You just have to.

OK —- But maybe there’s a different objection to this approach. So let me describe a different scene.

I’m in North Carolina. I’m meeting with a coalition of progressive groups across the state. They all represent groups that focus on a range of different issues. Some of them gender, some of them government, some of them civil rights, some of them criminal justice, some of them education.

Some of the leadership’s white. The vast majority of  the leadership’s black.

And I’m telling them about this idea that we’ve got to begin to think about racism as a class weapon. That that’s the route forward. And now they’re okay with it.


Right. The Black folks in the room are okay with it because they love the idea of somebody going to the white working class and lecturing them about racism.

So they’re okay with it.

But they’re also deeply skeptical. Right. And here’s what comes back to me. People say, are you telling me that we got to talk about racism terms of how it hurts white people?! But even racism now is gonna be about white folks.

  And then you want me to shift in a way that helps build a coalition with white people?! I’ve been hearing for too long that we need to change our politics and change our language and change our rhetoric so that we can make white people comfortable.

And I ain’t going to do it! Not going to do it anymore.


Now, one possible response is I can say to these folks, these are good white people. They’re complex. Yeah, they’re racist, but they’re also well-meaning.

I can come back to that. But trust me, that’s not the answer I give. No one wants to hear that one.

The answer I give instead is I say, listen, I’m coming out of a racial justice framework. I have studied racism my entire adult life. And for most of those years, I thought about racism in terms of a basic conflict between whites and people of color. And in that context, I came to understand that we were never going to overcome racism.

That you could get good, decent white folks to do the right thing, and join with people of color. Because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s the moral thing to do. And that with that sort of moral appeal, you might get 10 or 15 percent % of whites.

You might. And they’re gonna be amazing people. Frankly, I imagine it’s a good number of you here right? The sort of folks who say. Yeah. I got privilege, I going to work against it because I got to do what’s right. We got to change what’s happened in this country, right. There’s sort of a moral response.

But I also understood that if the analysis was racism as whites over non-whites. That was a way of saying whiteness was in the interest of white folks and most of them weren’t about to give it up. And what did that mean for me as a racial justice person? That meant I needed to focus on building power at the margins— in communities of color victimized by white racism—Understanding that racism wasn’t going to end, that the best we could do is build power for ourselves.

And while we’re at it, we can speak truth to power. We could disrupt. We could condemn.

But we weren’t really going to change where the majority white folks were at.

And you see that tendency now in 2020. Right? This is the racist call out strategy. This is people looking at Trump and saying, you know what Trump is saying, that’s racist. And if you got 60 million people supporting Trump, they’re probably racist to. And we better just tell them you’re being racist. And we hope we can shame them. We hope some of them will change. We don’t think they will.

So let’s go build power in communities of color. And with those few white people, 10, 15 percent, we’re gonna come along with us.

Right.   I know that approach. I come out of that school.

And yet, Talk to me about mass incarceration. Talk to me about mass deportation. Talk to me about the Flint water crisis. What caused that level of state violence against communities of color? State violence. The literal violence of the police or the Border Patrol, the symbolic I don’t know if it’s much less than literal violence of poisoned water.

There are very, very high levels of violence by the state against communities of color. What caused that? Ambient white racism caused that?  No!

What caused that were politicians like Bill Clinton, like Ronald Reagan, like Mitt Romney, like Donald Trump competing with each other.  Campaigning by talking about undeserving and dangerous people of color and then carrying forward those campaign promises by organizing the state in a way that cut off resources to communities of color — except for police and prisons. Except for militarizing an arming the border and building prisons,–largest growth sector in the federal prison system  now is  imprisoning immigrants at the root of the of the intense state violence against communities of color. It’s not ambient white racism. It’s politicians. And who stands behind those politician$ ?

The Koch brothers.  Big petrochemical industry. They wanted to make sure they weren’t regulated. What did they fund? They funded lobbyists, sure.  More than anything else, they funded right wing media enterprises and they funded the Tea Party.

They funded racist hate to get politicians elected who would be in their pockets and protect their petrochemical industry.  Or the Mercers or the Scaifes or the Trumps. These are billionaires funding, fueling, promoting, stoking, amplifying racial division 24/7.

Because it helped them rig the system for themselves.

They get us fighting each other and they laugh all the way to the bank. That is, as an analysis, the main impetus behind racism in America since the civil rights movement is not white racism out there in the abstract. It’s economic titans — some of the most powerful segments of the American society have invested vast resources into promoting racial division.

And what does that mean if you care about racial justice? What does that mean if you care about ending mass incarceration? Ending mass violence? Police violence against communities of color. Ending mass deportation. Abolishing ice, redirecting resources to communities of color.          hat means you go at the root of the problem. And the root of the problem are those dog whistle politicians. And how do you drive them out?

A multi-racial coalition.

Folks who want economic justice have to do both. They’ll lose if they don’t, folks who want racial justice have to do both racial and economic justice. We’ll lose if we don’t.



I earlier talked about Ronald Reagan. Many of you know, Ronald Reagan got his start as governor of California. And he won election and governed in dog whistle terms.


He won election and governed through messages of racial fear and resentment.

And he was instrumental in generating the sort of racial fear and resentment that would quickly find expression in Prop 13.

So when you when you entered here, they asked you to sign an initiative to put something on the ballot to repeal one part of Prop 13. You should understand what we’re doing is we’re trying to overturn one of the principle legacies of this sort of racial fear. How do people govern through racial fear?

Prop 13 is a classic example. It was sold to people as a guarantee that their property taxes would be rolled back, and that way they wouldn’t have to see their property taxes being used to pay for public education. Well, at the time, California had the best public education system in the country. Why did people turn against it?

Because it was a time in which public school integration was going on and they were essentially being told: Vote for Prop 13 and you won’t see your property taxes being used to pay for other people’s children. Now “other people’s children” it had always been other people’s children in the sense of like we’re always paying for other people’s children.

But no, this was a sense of other people’s children in the sense of a complete disconnect with these other groups, black and brown children. People didn’t want to pay for those. They voted for Prop 13. And now California is near the bottom of the country in terms of the resources we provide for our public schools.

In that context, there continues to be a very strong rhetoric that says “Public education fails because its project is impossible. These black and brown children are essentially in educable. They are not capable of learning their rowdy or boisterous. They’re violent. They’re disruptive.”

And what you’ve seen is a sort of ongoing — not only economic disinvestment in public schools— but also a sort of a cultural and physical retreat from public schools by just about everybody who can. So when people turn around and say our public schools are disasters,  frankly, in many ways they are because they’ve been made that way.

But in addition, it simply resonates with people that of course, they’re bad and they’re sympathetic to the idea that we ought to shut them down, without recognizing that one of the most important things a public school does is it integrates society.

Here’s what’s happened.

Over the last 50 years, ever since the civil rights movement, the party of big business, the corporate elites, the economic titans have figured out that they win when they divide us.

And how have the rest of us responded? We’ve responded essentially by saying, yeah, we don’t actually want to be together

We’ve responded essentially by saying, yeah, we don’t actually want to be together. Integration? hmm well…. We’re doubtful about it. Sending our kids to those schools with them. I don’t know about that. Workplace conflict. Segregated neighborhoods. White flight. We’ve done all of that. And our liberal institutions: they’ve given up on integration, too. And yet, if I could summarize everything I’ve been saying in one simple slogan:

E Pluribus Unum.

Out of many one.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one, our democracy and our economy, our marketplace, our lives depend on a sense of linked fate. That is the core insight of democracy. That has been broken. For the last 50 years, we’ve been doing nothing to rebuild it.

And if there is one… now, I mean, there’s a many, many ways we can rebuild it.  But one core way to rebuild a sense of linked fate is public education is a public education that teaches us we are all members of a pluralistic society doing our best to make this a society that respects the dignity of each of us, of our families, of our communities and our practices. And also that provides us the greatest opportunity to thrive.


That’s what public education needs to do. Right. And so we actually we need to reinvest in public education, not simply in the sense of schools are important to the next generation, but perhaps primarily in the sense of we need to reinvest in every social institution that builds social solidarity and a sense of linked fate and connection.


Anita Johnson:   You’ve been listening to Ian Haney López, the author of Merge Left Fusing Race and Class Winning Elections and Saving America on Making Contact.

Special thanks to Ian Haney López,  KPFA Radio for allowing us to broadcast this recording.  To hear the full conversation with Ian Haney Lopez, go to

You can contact to purchase this entire recording and you can see versions of it at

{and see the links above for his books and articles}

The Making Contact Team is executive director Lisa Rudman, producers Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson and Salima Hamirani, and I’m your host this week Kathryn Styer, Thanks for listening to Making Contact.



Author: Radio Project

Share This Post On