Talking effectively about race and policy in an Obama Era

Filed under: Transforming Race Conference |

Conventional wisdom says “Stay away from race. It’s a distraction at best and polarizing at worst.” With a Black president, this advice seems to be repeated louder and more often than before. Unfortunately, for those interested in progressive policy, President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are buying the conventional wisdom; and they’re losing. Healthcare reform, which looked like a slam dunk just a few months ago, is hanging on by a thread. And despite outrage at Wall Street bankers allowed to run amok with American nest-eggs, hopes for significant financial reform is looking just as dim.

Democrats are losing the communications battle because the conventional wisdom is wrong. Not only can we talk about race, but we must talk about race to win. Exciting new research by The Center for Social Inclusion (CSI), conducted with Westen Strategies, LLC ., shows us how.

But first, why should we talk about race? Policies need to take race into account to ensure that they benefit everyone. Race-neutral, anti-poverty strategies have proven time and again (1)(2)(3)(4) to not be enough to reduce racial disparities. For example, there is growing evidence that people of color are not benefiting as much as needed by the federal stimulus, especially in very-poor areas such as Mississippi where crucial infrastructure is missing . Race needs to be in the discussion when developing and implementing policy.

Secondly, our opponents are talking about race all the time. When they blame people of color for the economic crisis, call President Obama’s tax policy “welfare”, or claim health care reform will help “illegal aliens” while showing images of Latinos in handcuffs, they are exploiting race symbolically and subtly. When we ignore the use of race as a political wedge we lose ground in the communications battle. Remember when President Obama capitulated on whether health care reform would cover “illegal immigrants”? Allowing the right to be effective when they use race as a wedge exacerbates racial tension and makes our fight for progressive policies even harder .

So how can we talk about race effectively and without scaring people away? Admittedly, this is a challenging task. To explore this issue, we chose current policy debates in which race has played a substantial role: health care reform and the financial crisis. We then wrote one-minute storyboards with audio messages that used emotional images. Progressive messages for each policy area were pitted directly against a conservative message. An online panel of 900 registered voters rated each message, and here’s what we found:

Progressive messages with explicit references to people of color and multi-racial images significantly out-performed both conservative messages and race-neutral progressive messages. The most effective messages were those that primed values of hard work, a shared fate, and fairness. In the case of health care reform, we were able to directly take on the race wedge (“illegal immigrants”) and win.

Our findings make clear that only by affirmatively including race in policy debates can we proactively set the discourse, making space for more progressive messages and transformative policies. These test results are a promising first step in a larger strategy for moving us in the right direction. We must also continue our testing and build the capacity of advocates to make use of research. Messages alone will not get us there if people cannot deploy them in their own work.

We are excited to present this research at 4:00pm on Friday, March 12 at the Kirwan Institute’s Transforming Race 2010 conference. Please join us as we discuss how to develop a public will for race-conscious policies.


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Author: Jacob Faber (1 Articles)

One Response to Talking effectively about race and policy in an Obama Era

  1. Pingback: Obama and Race « Equalrespect's Blog

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