Can We Crack the Right’s White Bloc? These Organizers Say Yes
“I’m a Trump supporter,” the man told Danny Timpona, and went on to say that as much as he needed affordable health care, he absolutely was not in favor of any plan that included undocumented immigrants. “This country’s too damn free. We need to take care of our own people,” he said. That wasn’t the end of their conversation on a front porch in rural North Carolina. It was the beginning.
Timpona shared a bit of his own story, said there were many people he knew and loved who’d moved here from other places. He asked the man what his experience with immigrants has been. Turns out a lot of the people he worked with were immigrants. “They’re hard-working, family-centered, love ‘em to death.”
“Anyone in particular?” Timpona asked. Turns out the man had a friend named María, and she got notice that she could be deported. “I wrote a letter to the judge for her, wrote about six pages, got my buddies to bother the judge too,” he said. Maria stayed, at least for the time being.
The man was diabetic and really needed health care. Timpona asked him if he thought his friend Maria was to blame for the hospital bills piling up, the prescription medicine he couldn’t afford. “He said, ‘I never thought about it that way.’”
Timpona, who is the deputy director of distributed organizing for People’s Action, had that conversation in Fall 2019, as part of the group’s research leading into the 2020 election cycle. Over the next year, volunteers and organizers would have hundreds of thousands of such “deep canvass” conversations. Organizations in the People’s Action network reached out in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) called in to Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, ultimately focusing on Georgia before the presidential election. Both organizations were active in the Georgia runoff election.
They were mostly, though not exclusively, interested in talking to poor and working class white people, folks largely overlooked by the Democratic Party—and the white people with the greatest stake in deep change. Their conversations gently challenged racist explanations that have become the common sense, offering people a different frame and path. The approach they took also challenged the liberal taboo against talking about race with white voters, and yielded some insight into what those voters feel and need.
“Black and brown and indigenous communities are building power and we need to bring enough white folks to the table to make that a winning strategy, both for the immediate fights right now and the longer-term change we need,” said SURJ co-founder Carla Wallace. “If we are not organizing white folks and we are not being explicit around the issue of race, then the right is going to build. It’s the best messaging used with white people: those Black and those brown people are going to get something, and you’re going to pay for it. It’s the divide and conquer that’s been used since the beginning of this country and the reason race was created.”
“Deep canvassing is based in storytelling,” SURJ Electoral Campaign Manager Ash Overton said. They were among the first to work with the method when they were on staff at the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center’s Leadership LAB. Jolted by the 2008 passage of a California ballot measure banning gay marriage, organizers and activists took a hard look at how they were communicating. They discovered that exchanging stories can move people past talking points and ground them in their lived experience.
A typical deep canvass conversation begins with an open-ended question. It aims to engage rather than persuade. The canvasser will offer a bit of their own story in response to the answer, then ask the person they’re talking with for their experience, and try to engage them with a “cone of curiosity”—simple questions like “When did this happen? How did it feel?” As appropriate, the canvasser shares more story. Both the listening and vulnerability are key. In the process the canvasser listens for doubts, conflicts, openings to suggest a different way of seeing.
Overton helped organize around Los Angeles County Measure R, which was placed on the ballot in the March 2020 primary by a Black-led community coalition. Measure R gave subpoena power to the newly minted commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, and directed the commission to look at redirecting $3.5 billion away from jail expansion to alternatives to incarceration. SURJ door-knocked white voters in less affluent neighborhoods, mostly in eastern LA County. To ground the discussion in people’s lived experience, SURJ asked voters about cycles of harm and trauma in their lives, how they worked through those, and whether continuing the hurt had helped.
“It’s very vulnerable to talk about cycles of harm,” Overton said. “There was a shame and secrecy that had kept people from processing these experiences. To be asked questions and not judged was significant.” One of the voters they talked to was a grandmother who was raising her daughter’s children. She started out saying she had family in the Sheriff’s Department, didn’t know anyone who’d gone to jail. After a bit, she volunteered that her daughter’s boyfriend had done time for drugs, “and came out worse than he went in.” She reflected that she was trying to do better with her grandchildren than she had with her own children. “If I raised these guys the way I raised my kids, I’d be in jail. I was raised, you know, with a belt.” She and Overton shared about struggling, and anger, and the need for mental health support. By the end she said she favored Measure R “if it’s going to make life different, not just helping people but helping them understand so they can help the next person.”
Deep canvass conversations follow the arc of organizing—acknowledging people’s experiences, suggesting a different way to understand and respond to them. The race-class narrative frame highlights the stake that white people have in fighting racism and points to ways to take action.
FINDING A PERSONAL STAKE
The right wing has built cross-class solidarity on whiteness. Organizers using the race-class narrative aim to break that up. In doing so, they cross a taboo. Liberals and many leftists have shied away from talking about race with white people. “We think a different approach is necessary, one that links, rather than counterposes, class and race,” wrote Professor Ian Haney López. The race-class narrative understands racism as both violence done to people of color and the elites’ most effective tool for preserving their power.
“We should not be sacrificing racial justice concerns in order to pander to racist stereotypes,” López said. At the same time, white people need to understand how racism hurts them. In practice, this means identifying experiences and concerns that white people and people of color share.
Members of SURJ went door to door in Louisville’s white working-class neighborhoods to build support for an effort to end cash bail. “Kentucky is overwhelmingly white and it’s some of the poorest white folks in the country,” Carla Wallace said. Poor and working-class white people have been hurt by the criminal justice system, and relate to the unfairness of jailing people before trial just because they can’t make bail. But then SURJ canvassers introduce race.
“We say ‘a lot of black families have been impacted by that, a lot of struggling families like yours.’ … Then they say, ‘well, it depends. If someone does something…’ and we go back to their experience. ‘Was it fair for your uncle to be held before he was even found guilty?’ ‘No, no, that’s not fair.’ So we say, ‘Who’s making all that money collecting those bails? It’s not your neighbors, it’s the people at the top.’ I have found there will be a hesitancy around the conversation about race, but once you say, ‘I wonder who’s getting rich?’ a lot of people will be open to the conversation,” Wallace said.
Part of the conversation has to be calling out the racist tropes. During the fall 2020 elections, Pennsylvania Stands Up made deep canvassing calls into each of the state’s 67 counties. “We trained people to really talk about race and class,” said Jules Berkman-Hill, the group’s deputy organizing director. “Part of the methodology in deep canvassing is inoculating people against the right wing’s strategic racism and xenophobia. We would say, ‘It’s not your immigrant neighbor who’s the problem, it’s the one percent who’s dividing us,” Berkman-Hill said. The conversations explicitly identify people’s needs and self-interest.
SURJ and People’s Action don’t dismiss the problem of “white privilege” – but they don’t lead with it either. The work of bringing white people into multi-racial coalitions is less about making “better white people” and creating “allies” than about developing a genuine identification among white people with people of color.
“In any of this work that we do to build a broad-based multiracial working class movement in this country, we have to be able to speak to everyone’s pain and their experiences of oppression and suffering,” said Adam Kruggel, director of strategic initiatives for People’s Action. “Everyone is situated differently. There’s anti-blackness and terror directed against immigrants… We have to recognize that white people aren’t suffering because we are white. We have strategic advantages because of our race but it doesn’t mean that we don’t suffer or have disadvantages or difficulties or struggles…That is the basic question that we are trying to ask: Can our pain be a bridge instead of a barrier? We believe these are things that can bring us together, but what the right has been able to do for centuries is weaponize them and use them as a wedge to divide us. Once you begin to pull back the curtain and you can start to build empathy and you feel seen….we can have honest, meaningful transformative engagement with people.”
MAKING MEANING: REDNECKS FOR BLACK LIVES
Being seen is critical. Racist right-wing rhetoric not only explains people’s pain, but also affirms white identity by exclusion. Sometimes that’s done with dog-whistles like characterizations of people as either “makers” or “takers.” Sometimes it’s broadcast full-volume by white nationalists and neo-Nazis and the soon-to-be-ex President.
Either way, interrupting the right is complicated. It begins with engaging people through the deep listening conversations, as well as connecting to their values and history, and creating alternative ways to affirm their human worth.
At the height of the 2020 racial justice uprisings, Beth Howard, who is the organizing director for SURJ’s Southern Crossroads project, felt the need to speak with people in majority-white places in the south, and “interrupt the racist narratives around looting and rioting, the pro-police and anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric.” She wrote “Rednecks for Black Lives” as a letter, “an appeal”:
“For decades the label ‘redneck’ has been thrown at us to degrade us but it’s time we reclaim it. The term redneck actually comes from the nation’s largest labor uprising, the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921, when a multiracial group of 8,000 miners fought coal company operators to unionize. . . Even though the miners did not get their union at the end of that battle, it laid the foundation for a much bigger labor movement in years to come, exposed the dangers miners faced in the West Virginia coalfields, and maybe more than anything created power in the multiracial solidarity of poor and working people. The miners were called rednecks because of the red bandannas tied around their neck to indicate they were union.”
Talking about the piece, which went viral, Howard stressed the need to “uplift this history that’s very hidden from mainstream culture, to say ’this is who we are also’.” Drawing on her own experience growing up working class in Eastern Kentucky, she said, “When you go through so many struggles, you start to believe the things people say about you. . . We internalize the stereotypes, and/or start to think ‘I need to change, I need to disown all these parts of myself.’ A lot of our work is to be with people and help them see their worthiness and their dignity. Once people start to say, ‘actually, I do matter, I do deserve safe housing, a job that treats me well and pays a living wage, health care, clean drinking water,’ we start to see people say, ‘I’m not going to put up with this anymore, I’m going to stand up and fight for what I deserve and I’m going to fight for my neighbors too.”
WORD ON THE DOORS: POLITICS SUCK
The worries and problems canvassers heard on the phones and at the doors were no surprise: COVID. Losing, or being afraid of losing, work and housing. Needing unemployment benefits, COVID relief and health care. High utility bills, hospitals closing in rural areas. Scratch the surface, dig under the Fox News talking points, and most people felt the government had abandoned them.
“People feel lonely and isolated especially during COVID,” Jules Berkman-Hill said. “They feel their government abandoned them with not providing enough relief. Small business owners, people experiencing housing insecurity, getting laid off. People were really angry, really upset, and really scared.” People don’t identify as left, right or center, according to Berkman-Hill. “The most common political position was alienation,” she said. At the December 2020 Rootscamp panel on building multi-racial organizing, organizers from different regions confirmed this assessment.
Corruption emerged as the top issue for 10,000 voters surveyed by West Virginia Can’t Wait in summer 2019. “That didn’t imply any allegiance to the Democratic Party,” said panelist Cathy Kunkel, who ran for Congress as part of the group’s effort to bring in a “people’s government.” West Virginia voters feel “disenfranchised” by both parties, she said. Eighty-seven percent of rural voters “believe government reflects the will of the rich and influential,” according to a March 2020 survey by RuralOrganizing.
“A lot of people don’t vote,” Beth Howard said. “But for so many working people where I grew up, things didn’t really change for them no matter who they voted for. In the 80s and 90s when I grew up, when they voted for Democrats NAFTA happened, their jobs were gone, unions were broken up. They’ve been lied to by both parties. The party that is supposed to be taking up for poor people isn’t. They’re also run by billionaires.”
The right, ironically, runs a more persuasive critique of elites than many Democrats. “A lot of folks love Trump because of who and what he hates. The media. Academics and experts. The ‘liberal consensus’ and the language of inclusion. The Washington establishment and its insiders. And all the snooty liberals who embrace these things,” writes Anthony Flaccovento in “Overcoming the Urban-Rural Divide.”
Yet faced with pressing need and profound alienation, the Democratic Party persists in running to the center. The establishment refuses to learn from the appeal of candidates like Bernie Sanders, or Charles Booker – the progressive Black state representative who ran in Kentucky’s 2020 primary for the chance to take on Mitch McConnell.
“To not be able to communicate bold proposals and a bold plan that’s exciting and motivating is the most demobilizing thing I’ve seen,” Danny Timpona said. He has had deep conversations with people in North Carolina and in rural Appalachia about the Green New Deal, about cancelling student debt, about Medicare for All. Some people have been pinched by rising premiums and deductibles under Obamacare. “People aren’t dumb,” Timpona said. “It’s their experience, and people are living it. They put two and two together. We shouldn’t believe that this imaginary center is beneficial in this moment when the need is so desperate, and politics has been shifting to the right.”
The victory in the Georgia runoffs testifies to decades of organizing in the state’s Black communities and among its growing numbers of Latinx and Asian American voters – as well as a brave and skillful ground game in the election itself. Ahead lie the challenges of getting concrete results from those wins, and building out organizing among poor and working-class white voters.
“We can’t stop now that the election is over,” said SURJ National Coordinator Erin Heaney. “We’ve got to do everything we can to force the Dems to provide some relief to people, so when we’re knocking on doors again we have something to show for it. It’s going to be incredibly hard to get people to vote for Democrats again in two or four years if they haven’t been able to deliver anything.” Helpful as the race-class frame is, “our approach has to be more than narrative work and more than just one conversation. . . We have to organize around issues and in a way that is more transformational.”
Southern Crossroads has a tenant organizing project in middle Tennessee, and is preparing work in Kentucky and Georgia. They hope to network with existing groups and to bolster community organizing infrastructure in the rural South. Phone banks for the presidential election and the Georgia runoffs recruited more than 6,000 people interested in their work.
Pennsylvania Stands Up did deep canvassing around the COVID crisis and Black Lives Matter, and plans to take up work on the eviction crisis, utility shutoffs, and other issues.
“What our deep canvass conversations have taught me is that we need more of them,” said Jules Berkman-Hill. “We need much more infrastructure, much more scale, much more training and investment in leadership development, and we also need ways that people can be in long-term organizations with each other.”
The movement moment provides a springboard, and “Black and Indigenous leadership have created a lot of opportunities for advancing a progressive agenda,” said SURJ National Organizer Sarah Stockholm. “People get fixated on those who are furthest to the right… Our goal is not to move them. it’s to diminish their power, and we’ll do that by moving the folks who are in the middle or uncertain or can be swayed. And then we create an irresistible movement for them to be in, give them a sense of collective purpose, space to have internal transformation, and a belief that they can be an active part of a multi-racial democracy.”
Marcy Rein is a writer, editor, and organizer who has engaged with a wide range of social movements and organizational forms. She co-authored Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All (with Mickey Ellinger and Vicki Legion), forthcoming from PM Press in Fall 2020; with Clifton Ross, she co-edited Until the Rulers Obey: Voices From Latin American Social Movements (PM Press, 2014).