Chapter 8: Centering Race, Getting to Systems

Part 2: Expanding the conversation to systemic problems and solutions

How can we circumvent the abstraction of racism and draw systemic solutions out from the periphery of the public consciousness? And how do we navigate the deflections and defensiveness around racism as the cause of racial disparities while at the same time centering race—specifically Black and brown communities—in the conversation about economic justice and pro-worker policies in the South?

Rooted in Racism and Economic Exploitation: The Failed Southern Economic Model

Southern states’ economic policy agendas are overwhelmingly skewed toward suppressed wages, low taxes, scarce labor protections, anti-union efforts, and an ever-shrinking safety net. Conservative lawmakers tout these low-road economic development policies as being “pro-business,” necessary to create the conditions for shared prosperity.

But the reality, laid out in a recent EPI report, is that this Southern economic development model has not only failed workers, their families, and their communities across the South, it also has deep racist roots and continues to maintain racial disparities in the region:

…the Southern economic development strategy was never designed to help the vast majority of working Southerners; rather, it reflects efforts to ensure continued access to the cheap labor of Black people following emancipation. Today the cheap labor sought is increasingly diverse, yet it is still overwhelmingly made up of Black and brown workers across the region.

– Economic Policy Institute, Rooted in racism and economic exploitation: The failed Southern economic model (Chandra Childers, October 2023)

Our research points to productive and empowering ways to set the stage for collective responsibility for solutions by grounding the conversation in asset-based framing* and concepts of contribution.

Because a conversation “about racism” often gets trapped in thinking about how individuals treat each other, policy messages “about racism” get stuck because people struggle to see the systems and structures in play. People tend to focus on unhelpful and harmful rationales like deservingness and individual lack of effort.  In turn, these rationales that sort people into worthy and unworthy, successful and unsuccessful are a primary language through which racism, classism and generational conflict get expressed.

We can, instead, center the lives and livelihoods of Black and brown communities and lay the groundwork for systemic solutions by shifting to asset-based framing and concepts of contribution. All three synergistic elements we introduced in chapter 2 work together in this effort.

We promote a system (or people-driven) view of the economy that promotes building up and supporting ALL people and their potential. The idea is that the more people we have contributing to our economy, the better off we all are. The more people can reach their full potential, the more we all benefit from the contributions everyone can make.

And we can improve our state and our economy by removing barriers that keep people from taking part and making the investments and the changes that build up people and communities, supplying a missing piece of evidence in how people think about racial disparities and why we should close them.

Essentially, we are adding an economic argument to our moral anti-racist case. Through this lens, creating a more equitable and racially inclusive economy isn’t just a moral good, it is sound, smart, far-seeing economic policy AND a powerful rationale for treating racism (and sexism, ableism, etc.) as a collective responsibility.

“We can have a stronger and more secure economy if we have more people contributing to it . . . Combating racism and sexism gives women and people of all races opportunities to be treated better in the workplace and to contribute more to the economy.”

– 31-year-old white Hispanic man, conservative, KS

Why (and how) this works:

The idea that we should be tapping into the vast reservoir of human potential resonates with people. An economy that recognizes everyone’s humanity in which everyone can contribute to their full potential—and isn’t blocked from contributing—speaks to people’s aspirations instead of fears and grievances—whether we are making a class- or gender- or race-based argument.

“Giving opportunities to people will contribute to the economy. I feel it’s basic logic that helping your people will help you and your economy as well.” 

– 21-year-old mixed race woman, Independent, KS

“[The] economy, society, etc., will be in better condition if everyone has opportunities and resources to contribute to it.” 

– 31-year-old Hispanic woman, apolitical, AR

Building on previous research on the effectiveness of asset-based framing, our 5-state survey confirmed that messaging from an asset, aspirational or solutions perspective is more effective than relying on deficit- or problems-based framing. Whether focused on class or race, messages focused on contribution and potential are overwhelmingly convincing.

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-state survey, May 25-29, 2023

As progressive communicators, we need to consistently, vividly and explicitly talk about people’s well-being as the cause and wellspring of a good economy. We want to tell the stories of people, and we will be most effective if those stories avoid the traps of the Individual Lens (triggering the deservingness trap, pushing collective solutions to the periphery etc.) and tell stories of people that are within the helpful systems frame.

From an asset-based perspective, we can connect the dots between individual peoples’ real experiences and aspirations to the conditions that make things either doable or difficult AND ideas about how to create better conditions.

For example:

Jean Billings credits the Wake Tech Student Services Grant for her recent status as a CPA. “The transportation and childcare grants were critical in allowing me to finish the credentialing program. Before this, I had to keep taking semesters off to take care of my family and work to catch up on bills. But this past year, I was able to finish the classes I needed to get certified to start on my new career, and start saving for that down payment on a house.” Policies like comprehensive wrap-around services go a long way in allowing people to fulfill their dreams and aspirations AND working toward equitable local communities and economies. 

Ellen Jones, President of the Phoenixville Black Chamber of Commerce and owner of Ellen’s Bakery in downtown Phoenixville, notes the lack of affordable housing in the area.  “I have the most amazing employees, but they can’t afford to live within an hour of here. This white wealthy community relies on Black and brown workers like me and my employees but there’s no place for us here. If my employees could afford to live closer to work, they’d spend less time and expense getting to work, and more being able to contribute to work, family, and community obligations and aspirations. Quality housing people can afford, right here, would help our workers and the broader community thrive.”

Keep in mind—it’s not about specific slogans. Rather, these are ideas that can be reinforced and communicated in various ways and contexts to create a new understanding of how broadly-shared prosperity REALLY works.

*Asset framing, promoted by Trabian Shorters of BMe, is the practice of defining people by their strengths and aspirations, rather than reinforcing stigmatizing ideas about what’s lacking.

Missed a chapter? Check out the previous Voices from the South chapters here and stay tuned for more! Questions? Don’t hesitate to reach out: