Melissa Perry-Harris

Political scientist and commentator Melissa Harris-Perry led a wide-ranging Monday General Session that touched on implicit bias, racism, classism, presidential elections, state policies and more. In a rousing, often funny, presentation, she challenged attendees to reconsider the narratives that we believe and that we create — narratives that can ultimately improve health and advance equity.

The 2016 and 2018 national elections, in particular, were built around two narratives: one of exclusion or othering, and one of inclusion or belonging. She asked which path do we want to follow, offering up three primary stories that we as a country believe and that many people do not question.

Story No. 1: It’s the economy, stupid.

This phrase was part of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign strategy and reflected the belief that voters make decisions with their pocketbooks. Fast forward to 2018 and some media analysts predicted that record low unemployment would benefit Congress’ controlling party during the midterm elections. And yet, Democrats successfully took back the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I want you to consider another way of thinking about what this narrative might be: that rather than the ‘economy, stupid,’ it’s the enduring and growing vulnerability relative to economic status that may be more explanatory for us in terms of outcomes,” Harris-Perry said. “Of course, employment matters, but I’m black in America; I know you can have a job and make no money. … I’m also a woman, and I know you can work your ass off all day and night and make no money!”

While employment matters, it doesn’t tell the entire story of economic stability. Instead, we need to stop thinking about the economy in relatively narrow terms and consider the intersectionality of issues, she told Annual Meeting attendees.

Story No. 2: The South is a conservative stronghold.

Harris-Perry took the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to task for tending to ask only one question before deciding whether to endorse a person before the primaries: How much money can you raise?

Democratic leaders work under the belief that there are not enough Democrats in the South, she said. “It’s like, did anything happen before 1980?! I don’t know — maybe we could read a history book and see that it was once all Democrats in the South and then the Republicans were like, ‘psst, they’re just mad about Lincoln and that’s been a long time; let’s run some people!’”

Harris-Perry said she wishes it were more complex than that, but it’s not. Democrats gave up the South when it became competitive in the Reagan years.

Harris-Perry pointed out that economic vulnerability resides most deeply in the U.S. South, particularly among Southerners of color. Part of that is connected to policy: lack of unions, lack of reasonable minimum wages. But the South is also where voter suppression lives on, she said. In 2013, for instance, the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder “gutted” the Voting Rights Act of 1965 just before campaigning got underway for the 2016 presidential election.

“We will never quite know how much it impacted the 2016 election,” Harris-Perry said.

Story No. 3: Democrats need to pursue working-class white voters.

This lesson from the 2016 presidential election, in which many were surprised that the Republicans captured working-class votes, is flawed, Harris-Perry said. Hillary Clinton actually won among lower-income voters overall.

“That’s ‘cause she won black women, and we do not make a lot of money,” Harris-Perry said.

“But it’s not income; it’s not wealth; it’s not class, my friends!”

In fact, white people voted for Trump across the board, whether they were rich, middle-income, working-class or lower-income. “It’s a coalition of white folks … but let’s not make it something that it is not. It’s not a coalition of the working class,” she said.

As we examine new narratives, we need to look at the intersectionality of race, poverty and gender, Harris-Perry urged the audience.

“I think we need new stories about vulnerability, poverty and identity,” she said.

After her presentation, Harris-Perry was joined by three other speakers for a conversation around building narratives.

Eldar Shafir, professor of behavioral science and public policy at Princeton University, briefly explained how quickly humans make intuitive assessments about people and situations. “The problem is we’re not always right,” he said.

But adjusting our intuition is hard work and requires motivation, time, bandwidth and understanding, he said. Studies have shown that Americans — unlike Europeans — believe that if you work hard, you will succeed in life and don’t put much weight behind luck having a role in wealth and success.

“This means if I see people who are poor, they just lack willpower or capacity,” Shafir noted.

Shafir argued that it’s good news that Europeans believe the opposite because it means Americans can change their thinking. And studies show that the more people believe luck makes a difference, the more they support social service programs.

john. a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California in Berkeley, explained how Americans tend to assign competency to people based on their appearance. For example, Americans tend to think white men are competent and likable, so we give them deference. Women are often thought to be likable but not competent — think about attitudes around whether a woman can be president of the U.S.

Session speaker Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is fighting for the rights of society’s “invisible” workers — house cleaners, nannies, home care workers. Poo is working to change the narrative of domestic workers through a strategy inspired by the LGBTQ movement over the past few decades. That movement used a combination of state-based campaigns, grassroots organizing and pop culture to change how Americans think about LGBTQ people. She pointed to the impact of television shows like “Will and Grace” and “Glee.”

Poo is helping domestic workers use their narrative power. “We have to build power behind the narrative that humanizes and asserts our dignity and our fundamental rights in this democracy, no matter what.”

As public health professionals, are you solely using data and facts to support your work? Or are you telling emotional stories that will resonate with people? Poo compares it to the difference between making a documentary and an action movie.

“Until [progressives] get used to and comfortable with being in the space of the emotional and the irrational and really contending for hearts — not just minds — I think that we’re always going to be at a disadvantage,” Poo said.

At top, Melissa Harris-Perry leads the Annual Meeting Monday General Session, organized in collaboration with the California Endowment. Photo by Jim Ezell, courtesy EZ Event Photography