Engaging on Race

Race is centered in all of our work. No matter the issue, race influences how people understand the problem and solution, and people of different backgrounds bring their own perspectives and life experiences to the dialogue.

On a challenge as deeply rooted and complex as racism, multiple strategies are necessary. Different goals require different approaches: Defeating cynical, “dog-whistle” candidates, energizing a political base, changing the practices of doctors or teachers, promoting public investment in neglected (or actively excluded) communities, advancing a race-forward policy agenda, decreasing race-based distrust between different population groups, transforming the culture to tackle injustice—varied objectives like these cannot be met with just one or two narrative approaches.

Here we share strategies for engaging Black, Latinx, and White people in the fight for change.


Centering Race, Centering Government


What role, if any, do Americans see for the government in advancing racial equity?

 To answer that question, Topos, in partnership with the Othering and Belonging Institute, and with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, undertook an extensive, multi-method research effort designed to:

  •     Determine the current landscape of American public opinion on race and government,
  •     Develop an audience typology at the intersection of government accountability and racial equity, and
  •     Test three message approaches, each with unique outcomes, to add to communicators’ strategies.

 Racism presents the deepest challenge in American life. Audiences bring their own complex—and often hidden or even subconscious—perspectives to the issue. This research strongly suggests that current public discourse on race would benefit from an explicit discussion of the government’s role, helping audiences to see how policies shape lives. 

A careful analysis of American stances at the intersection of race and government, finds distinct challenges to address with each segment:

Pragmatic Advocates want government to do more to address racial inequities, but are skeptical of government impact and have a low sense of efficacy.

Idealistic Advocates want government to do more to address racial inequality, and believe disparities stem from discriminatory policies, systems, and institutions. 

Muddled Movables are hesitant about government action, but are more persuadable than other segments. 

Conflicted are rugged individualists who largely endorse a hard work, personal responsibility ethos despite believing race-based discrimination is pervasive. 

Hardline Objectors are staunchly opposed to increasing government’s role and reject that Black people face greater discrimination than do white people. 

Finally, this research adds three messages to communicators’ toolkit. An explicit discussion of Government’s Role in racial equity puts race at the center of the conversation and effectively increases support for government problem solving, including taking action to improve conditions for Black people. A Community Investment message empowers people to take action and increases support for more government action, though communicators will need to take strides to ensure race doesn’t fall out of the conversation. A Different Groups, Different Challenges approach reaches those who are normally resistant to race-related conversations.

Making government accountability a centerpiece of our national conversation on race will go a long way toward achieving the equitable, thriving America we seek. 

Executive Summary

Full Report

Methods Appendix


Civic Engagement in Low-Income Black and Latinx Communities

The weight of inequality, the pain of declining community investments, and the rise of a police surveillance state, is felt acutely and consistently in the daily lives of Black and Latinx Americans. Often, their voices are not heard, yet engaging historically underrepresented and disenfranchised communities into collective action is a vital need.

Topos went to the streets of Baltimore, Oakland, and New Orleans to listen to the voices of historically disenfranchised communities. One of the most consistent barriers we heard is the firm belief that nothing will ever change—that Black and Latinx voices don’t matter. Yet people are eager to tap into the community’s potential. Hearing stories of empowered people of color who have successfully engaged in social action to address inequities is the missing ingredient that motivates people to action. Stories of success prove change can happen, model the steps to enact change and demonstrate the tangible benefits that can improve lives when groups take steps beyond voting. Bringing those stories together into a bigger vision for systemic change reveals a path forward that feels achievable.





Latinx Voters

The Latinx population is significant and growing, and yet participation in electoral politics has lagged behind other populations. Increasing turnout would have a dramatic influence on several state and federal elections. Topos conducted hundreds of ethnographic interviews with Latinx Americans (in English and Spanish) to develop profiles of the Latinx voting population, with engagement strategies for each profile. One of the many insights from these profiles is debunking the myth that apathy is the problem. Our research finds that the opposite is true—some feel so strongly about the importance of voting that they don’t want to make a mistake. Therefore, if they feel unprepared, they don’t vote. Campaigns stressing the importance of voting backfire with this profile. Our approach boosted voting in one state by 7.9% – 36% more effective than a typical GOTV effort.




White Support for a Race-Forward Agenda

Every day, advocates around the nation are working to address disparities, dismantle structural racism, and improve people’s lives. Building the broad-based support needed for lasting policy change, especially in states with a high percentage of White residents, requires reaching those currently reject race as a unifying experience or one that influences life outcomes.

Topos research finds that many Americans who are often well meaning or sympathetic toward Black and Latinx people, get caught in a Vicious Cycle of Race Dismissiveness that prevents them from even listening to a policy conversation on race. Breaking through that Cycle is key to building support among these audiences.

Research finds that the most effective way to quickly break out of the vicious cycle is to position race-related obstacles as experiences that Race-Dismissive people can relate to and understand, rather than reject and dismiss. We create a way for Race-Dismissive people to identify by getting them to consider a variety of experiences they can relate to. When we get people to see the world from this perspective, even Race-Dismissive individuals are inclined to listen and learn.