To understand why this works, it helps to compare it to the standard Democratic responses to Mr. Trump’s messages stoking racial fear.
One standard reaction is to directly challenge Mr. Trump as a bigot while also condemning structural racism. We tested a message like this. It said, in part,
Certain politicians promote xenophobia, racism and division. And it’s not just their words. It’s their policies, too. We see it in how they rip families apart at the border. And in how the police profile, imprison and kill Black people.
Compared with the dog-whistle fear message, this “call out racism” message lost among whites, perhaps unsurprisingly. It also lost among those Latinos who did not perceive themselves as people of color.
Denouncing racism against Latinos seems like an obvious strategy to those of us who see ourselves as people of color and are outraged by Mr. Trump’s denigrating language and his administration’s violence toward Latin-American immigrants. Yet this approach ignores the fact that our racial self-conception is not shared by a majority of Hispanics, who seem to balk at understanding themselves as people of color under racist attack.
The other standard Democratic response to dog whistling is to sidestep racial issues as much as possible. Let’s call this the “colorblind” approach, which we also tested. Our version partly said,
We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but Covid-19 illnesses and deaths are worse here than almost anywhere else. We must elect new leaders who have a plan and are ready to build this country back, better.
This approach seeks to build a coalition by emphasizing shared concerns, for instance around health care or the economy, while avoiding divisive conversations about racism. But it is dog-whistle racism that cleaved the white working and middle classes from the Democratic Party in the first place, and failing to counter that strategy directly leaves its potency intact. In our research, the colorblind message basically tied the racial fear message among whites as well as the majority of Hispanics.
In contrast, Democrats can build common cause across economic classes and racial groups with a race-class approach.
We tested seven race-class messages woven around different issues, including immigration reform and criminal justice. Among whites — often seen as more likely to be comfortable with messages that avoid challenging racism — all seven race-class messages beat the colorblind narrative. Indeed, five beat or tied the dog-whistle message, something the colorblind message failed to accomplish.
Framing racism as a class weapon also proved effective at nurturing support for racial justice reforms. The race-class approach urges people to view the real threat in their lives as emanating from powerful elites stoking division, not from supposedly dangerous minorities.