Racial Justice – Narrative Guidance

Talking About Race – Key Narrative Guidance

For the first time in decades, race has taken center stage in our national politics. In his campaign for president, Donald Trump moved from “coded” or “dog-whistle” racism to much more explicit messages around immigration, Muslims, and caricatures of urban ghettos.

But even before Trump’s rise, the public discussion was forced by the power of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in demanding discussion of the racism of the criminal justice system. And by the right-wing reaction to a Black President in an America which is increasingly Black and Brown and Asian.

We have much to learn about how to talk about race, but we cannot avoid the topic, as we have too often done. What we do know is that the focus of our narrative must be on structural racism, rather than individual racial bias, understanding that:

  • Racism is a force distinct from class and from other prejudices.
  • It is essential to dismantle structural racism, rather than change racial attitudes, in order to for people of color in the United States to achieve equity in outcomes with Whites.
  • It is essential to dismantle structural racism to build a truly just and equitable society for people of all races.
The key communications lesson is that we must focus on the systemic causes of racism rather than describing the disparate impacts.


Ian Haney-Lopez explains why a focus on racial disparities – instead of the systemic causes of disparities – backfires.

If all that one provides is a mini-sermon on racial unfairness with no deeper discussion, talking about race tends to confirm rather than disprove negative stereotypes about nonwhites. Because many whites believe that major social institutions are racially fair and include vast racial disparities, simply informing them about dramatic race-correlated differences will not change their beliefs. Instead, and perversely, among those who accept dramatic racial inequalities as a normal and legitimate feature of society, hearing about discrepancies alone tends to solidify their beliefs regarding minority failings and society’s basic fairness. Of course there are striking imbalances in incarceration rates, health outcomes, test scores, unemployment numbers, and familial wealth— the response will come— and you’ve just shown that these natural differences are even greater than I realized. More than ineffective, it’s downright counterproductive to merely stress racial gaps or allege racial discrimination.

-Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Haney-Lopez also points out that focusing on disparities reinforces stereotypes even among people of color, “Even those who are victims of structural racism, trapped by large-scale forces beyond their control, tend to blame themselves.”

Rather than a focus on disparities, we must help people recognize, understand and be supportive of making policy and institutional changes that break down the barriers that people of color face throughout their lives.


Below are links to 3 guides on talking about race, each of which include this key lesson:

Talking About Race – Message Advice from Our Story.

Ten Lessons for Talking About Race, Racism and Racial Justice, from The Opportunity Agenda

Who Leads Us – message guide for talking about more diverse public leadership, from Women’s Donor Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign.