Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) recently appeared at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, and laid out how the working class has been “screwed.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who is an avowed Democratic socialist, has a deep working class background. Even though she earned a degree in economics from Boston University, she worked as a bartender in New York City prior to being elected to Congress. On her Twitter account, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez frequently credits her work as a bartender with her ability to read people, detect lies, and cut through nonsense.

During a SXSW panel alongside The Intercept’s Briahna Gray, the freshman Congresswoman from the Bronx described how the American working class was conquered by former President Ronald Reagan, whom she accused of exploiting racism to impose policies antithetical to American working class interests.

“I think a perfect example of how special interests and the powerful have pitted white working class Americans against brown and black working class Americans in order to just screw over all working class Americans, is Reaganism in the eighties when he started talking about ‘welfare queens,’ ” Ocasio-Cortez said. “He’s painting this, like, really resentful vision of essentially black women who were doing nothing that were sucks on our country.”

“It’s this whole tragedy of the commons type of thinking where it’s like, because this one specific group of people that you were already subconsciously kind of primed to resent, you give them a different reason — that’s not explicit racism but still rooted in a racist caricature — that gives people a ‘logical’ reason to say, ‘oh yeah, no, toss out the whole social safety net,’ ” she continued.

While The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra attempted to frame Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of Reagan’s deft use of racism to drive a wedge between working-class Americans as a lie (The Daily Wire is a billionaire-funded website run by far-right pundit Ben Shapiro), Reagan was simply following the “Southern Strategy” laid out by GOP strategist Lee Atwater.

In 1981, Atwater told political scientist Alexander Lamis that his strategy to get Reagan elected was to play on whites’ racial biases — not by throwing around racial slurs, but by championing policies that disproportionately target people of color. Namely, cuts to social services and promoting “states’ rights” in states led by racist officials.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N****r, n****r, n****r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n****r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N****r, n****r.”

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez also spoke about policies that would benefit the American working class, like the Green New Deal. She pointed out that while FDR’s New Deal was biased toward whites (since Southern “Dixiecrats” only promised to support it if it didn’t upend segregation), her proposal would be good for both black and brown working-class Americans as well as whites, specifically citing Puerto Rico, Flint, Michigan, and coal miners in West Virginia.


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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