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We Need a Race-Conscious Populist Economic Agenda

Amy Traub

The recent State of the Union address showcased the particular brand of phony populism that Americans are coming to know all too well. 

It’s a populism that demonizes immigrants as the main threat to struggling workers. It’s a populism that loudly claims credit for lowering African American unemployment.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor pushes new rules that allow restaurant owners to redirect billions of dollars of servers’ tips into their own pockets and quietly guts the federal office protecting homebuyers from discrimination. It is a populism that serves mainly to distract and divide us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, policymakers, grassroots organizations and other thought leaders can embrace an authentic, multiracial economic populism that places both race and class at the forefront. This kind of policy must account for inequities of gender, sexual orientation, and other social cleavages that are used to oppress and separate us.

Policies should genuinely address the economic challenges faced by working people and the families they support, while also directly challenging the racism that saturates American politics and policy. We’ve recently brought together concrete proposals to lift up working people of all backgrounds.


And so, instead of a throwaway line about supporting paid family leave, we need national policies that recognize that the American workplace is still built for a male worker with a wife available to provide care for children, aging relatives and loved ones who fall sick.

Yet, this norm never applied to most households of color or LGBTQ households, and does not apply to the majority of American households today. Most families with children have all adults in the workforce, and mothers are key breadwinners. A policy grounded in these realities would guarantee paid time for all working people to care for loved ones in need, without restrictions on the type of workers — or the type of families — that qualify.

When we acknowledge that today’s working class consists primarily of women and people of color, often putting in irregular hours for low pay in the service sector, it is clear that truly putting working people first requires action to raise the minimum wage and eligibility for overtime pay, ensure fair work schedules, prevent wage theft, and protect against discrimination and harassment in the workplace. 

Phony populism insists corporate tax cuts are the best way to serve the interests of working Americans. Real populism demands that working people have the freedom to join together in unions and negotiate with their employers for a fair return on their work.


Rather than easy applause for acts of individual heroism in the face of climate disasters, we need policies that promote climate equity, targeting the corporate interests that put our lives at risk by continuing to extract, sell and burn fossil fuels.

We must recognize that communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental ruin, and work toward a just transition to renewable energy that makes corporate polluters pay their fair share for the damage they do. We need to invest in the people and places most devastated by our reliance on dirty energy, and in the working people who will be displaced from jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

Finally, we must increase funding for disaster recovery and resiliency, targeting the communities likely to be hardest hit, so our survival is not contingent on heroic deeds or charitable efforts.


A fizzy stock market may buoy those lucky enough to have college savings accounts (until the next crash), but it offers no solution for the millions of American families who are living paycheck to paycheck — yet aspire to help their children attend college and attain a better future. 

Soaring tuition at public colleges and universities is largely the result of states’ decisions to disregard what used to be a public responsibility, shifting more college costs onto students and families. And because families of color have been excluded from opportunities to build wealth over generations, they are less likely to afford college up front, and more likely to face difficulty repaying student loans. 

Policy rooted in those facts will increase public investment so that students can live and study without taking on debt. At the same time, policymakers must address the $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loan debt that weighs down families. 

The “New American Demos” — people of color, single women, young people, and working-class Americans of all races — is hungry for policies that actually address their lives and struggles. To elevate the policy conversation and advance the interests of working people in 2018 and beyond, we must commit to a race-forward populist economic agenda that will enable all of us to thrive.

This article originally appeared in The Hill.