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How Democrats Should Have Answered Gwen Ifill’s Question on Race

With one question, moderator Gwen Ifill flipped the script on race relations in America during the last Democratic presidential debate. Now, Democrats must learn how to answer it.

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS made history at the Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just by showing up. After all, they were the first all-female team to host a major presidential debate. Then veteran PBS journalist Ifill turned the conventional narrative on race relations on its head.

Moderator: When we talk about race in this country, we always talk about African Americans, people of color. I want to talk about white people, okay.

White people. I know.

Many people will be surprised to find out that we are sitting in one of the most racially polarized metropolitan areas in the country. By the middle of this century the nation is going to be majority nonwhite. Our public schools are already there. If working class white Americans are about to be outnumbered, are already underemployed in many cases, and one study found they are dying sooner, don’t they have a reason to be resentful, Secretary Clinton?

In the middle of a primary race in which the candidates seem to be competing for minority voters, Ifill focused on a crisis that seems unrelated to concerns like the water crisis in majority black Flint, Michigan. Ifill was, of course, referring to the widely reported study by Princeton University professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, which chronicled the malaise among white working-class Americans. The study notes the increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans, “from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicides, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis,” primarily among low-income whites with only high school diplomas.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders stuck to scripted, generalized positions. Neither deeply engaged the question. That’s unfortunate, because Democrats are in a better position to answer it. (Republicans didn’t even try in their last debate.)

Here’s how the candidates should have answered the question.

Do they have reason to be resentful? Yes, but let’s examine why, and where that anger would be rightly directed.

White working-class Americans have been hit with a cultural and economic double-whammy. The face of America is changing, to reflect our rich diversity. Our cultural icons — our sports heroes, celebrities, political leaders, and even our presidents — are people of color. For many Americans, that means the face of America is less likely to be a reflection of their own.

For Americans who grew up in a time when our cultural icons were virtually all white, this is a jarring — if not alarming — development. Unfortunately, that makes it easier for Republicans to exploit racial fears and anxieties, and use the anger that always accompanies them to scapegoat people of color, for the economic woes that lie at the heart of the question.

At the same time that America was undergoing cultural and demographic changes, economic changes were making things worse for working-class families. The Princeton study that called attention to the increased death rate among white working-class Americans underscored a direct correlation with the changing economic conditions that began in the 1970s: massive offshoring of jobs, corporate deregulation, increase production, and wage stagnation.

Some of those economic changes were unfortunately bipartisan. Democrats, who should have known better, too often joined Republicans in passing laws that weakened economic support programs, and trade deals that were supposed to create growth, but only ended up undercutting American workers’ wages and offshoring American jobs.

However, those economic changes were made even worse by right-wing conservative politics and policies that rewarded wealth over work. Republicans in Congress, for example, sought to cut the earned income tax and the child tax credit — both of which benefitted their own working-class base — while making huge corporate tax cuts permanent. In states like Wisconsin, Republican governors and legislators passed and implemented “right to work” laws to keep wages low, and workers. Governors like Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker attacked unions, leaving workers with no way to bargain for better wages or pensions.

Is it any wonder that so many believe that America’s best days are behind us? They were taught that if they would hard they would be rewarded. Now they are working harder than ever for less and less. They started out at a time when a high school graduates could land a lifetime job with good wages and benefits, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.

Our challenge is to reach those voters with a message that the reason they are struggling is because the system is rigged against them, and in favor of the wealthy and corporation interests. Republicans want to keep rigging the system with permanent tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthy that don’t improve the lives of everyday working Americans. We want to change this by demanding that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, close loopholes that reward companies for abandoning American workers, and end trade deals that send American jobs away from our shores.

Do working-class whites have a reason to be resentful? Yes. As Democrats, as progressives, we must meet that resentment with an understanding of where it really comes from, and a message that turns it back upon those for whom the system is rigged, and those who make sure it stays that way.

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