The Tesla Approach to Ending Racism

What on earth does Tesla electric cars have to do with racism? Not anything really, but this is story about the strategy you employ to fight for change.

The Tesla Strategy

Back in 2008 two cars and companies representing entirely different strategies to electrification of the transport sector emerged. This was represented by Tesla’s Roadster and the Th!nk City EV, I will just say Think for short from now on.

What strategy proved superior? Just look around. Tesla’s are everywhere but most people outside of my native Norway which produced the Think car, have probably never even heard about this car brand.

Think was a car for the die-hard environmentalists. It had no excessive luxury, it was tiny and modest looking. It was made for idealists who wanted to safe the world.

The Tesla Roadster was the complete opposite. It was an ostentatious sports car, which reeked “rich man’s toy.” Many environmentalists held their nose at the car. What gimmick! Instead of saving the planet, Elon Musk was making a toy for the rich. A status symbol. They where not happy.

Tesla is one of the most popular cars in Norway today. No other country has as high density of Tesla’s. No other brand sells as many cars, of any car brand including fossil fuel cars. You can just walk out of your house and you will have seen a couple of Tesla’s on the road.

Yet it is also one of the most hated cars. Social democratic Norway has a certain knee-jerk reaction toward luxury. The fact that Tesla is a luxurious car which is fun to drive and gives massive horse power really puts people off.

But there is an important lesson here beyond the moralizing about Tesla. The strategy Elon Musk outlined worked. He knew you could not get volumes up by appealing to hippies who preferred to live in trees. Elon’s strategy was to make the best car. A car anybody would want to have, even if they did not care about the environment.

I have seen this play out again and again in Norway. You got petrol heads who don’t really care about the environment but which do care about having a fast flashy car. And thanks to the Norwegian tax regime, that means they only option is often a Tesla. As soon as these guys get one and start driving one, they are won over. They love the smooth ride. The instant acceleration, the fancy tech gadgetry. And before you know it they are ranting on about the need for a green shift at the company lunch table. They have drunk the Kool-Aid. They have become part of the Tesla mission.

Ending Racism the Tesla Way

So far many of the strongest advocates against racism are modeling their approach on Th!nk City. Not knowingly of course, but that is basically what they are doing.

They are ranting using a divisive language. Sometimes like Marley K. by calling all whites racists. The problem with this approach is the same as with the Think. You only appeal to a narrow group of people who have already drunk the Kool-Aid.

But to win you need to win over a much broader group of people. You need to win over people who don’t even care about racism or perhaps even people who are actually racist, and don’t mind.

The latter part is the equivalent of the petrol heads who spew hatred about electric-cars but at the end of the day they really love to have a cool looking car that drives fast. If that means getting a Tesla, many will simply swallow their pride.

This is all about getting buy-in. You need to make those indifferent to racism or those who are racists see benefits in doing something which actually helps end racism.

Here is a problem which both the left and the right in America face. The right will claim the poverty and overrepresentation on crime statistics of black Americans is caused by their inferiority. The American left in contrast will claim it is all about racism and will indulge in the fantasy that with simply enough self flagellation about their white privilege this poverty will simply evaporate.

The Grad Delusion of the American Left

This is the grand delusion of the American left. Poverty among African-Americans is simply not down to racism exclusively. Most likely it is not even all that much down to present day racism. Rather it is in much larger part due to the legacy of past racism and slavery.

Poverty is something you tend to inherit, regardless of race. If your parent’s where poor, there is a high chance you will end up poor as well. This is even more true in today’s America than before as it has rather low social mobility. As a country that prides itself as the land of opportunity the US ranks rather low on social mobility at rank 27. That is even below stuffy old Britain which ranks at 21.

How can this be? Why did all those Europeans move to the US if opportunities are so bad in the US? Because the world changes. Europeans moved to the US almost 100 years ago. Back then the US was indeed the land of opportunity and European nations suffered rigid class hierarchies. But deep problems cause counter movements to undo this. The massive inequalities of Europe cause a massive swelling of the socialist movement that created massive labor movements, social democratic parties etc.

The US in contrast was sitting on its ass, going “Huh look at lame old Europe! We got this class thing all figured out.” The result was that as Europe improved mobility rapidly, the US stagnated and social mobility actually declined.

Hence if you could by magic make all blacks in America look white, you could not actually make their lives radically improved. They would still be trapped by poverty. Of course it would mean many improvements. They would not be as likely to be shot by the police and they would not get arrested for trespassing 62 times in a row at their own workplace.

African-Americans are suffering both from racism and poverty. You may get arrested because you are black, but what makes you end up in prison is in large part because of poverty leaving you with a shitty lawyer not doing his job.

Hence one way of making a massive change to the life situation of African-Americans is to end poverty, and that is something you can even get the racists behind.

If Americans are given universal health care, free college, quality schools and stronger unions which can fight for higher pay that will benefit anyone poor today, but since more blacks are poor than whites it will disproportionately benefit blacks.

Conservatives know the dangers of this. They know that poor whites will benefit from such schemes. Thus they try to make sure whites think welfare goods are primarily something benefitting blacks. That is why they will like Ronald Reagan talk about Welfare Queens.

Bernie Sanders perhaps better than any other American politician understood this. He understood like Elon Musk that you need to broaden the appeal. You could not just win over the ideologically pure. You had to make sure a broad coalition of people see gains from his policies.

Candidates like Joe Biden are in my opinion obstacles in this fight. And they are not even offering the equivalent of Think. They are not offering much of anything that fundamentally changes poverty in America. All they offer minorities is lip service. They talk about racism. They suggest things like police reform. Yet they don’t tackle the system at its core.

At the core of the problem is America’s poverty problem and lack of social mobility. Inequality and poor social mobility is strongly connected. It is IMHO no coincidence that the countries in the world with the highest social mobility are all Nordic countries. Nordic countries give all citizens schools of similar quality regardless of income. Similar quality child care and health care, combined with large unions dominating the economy and pushing up wages for those at the bottom. That means somebody at the bottom gets a real shot at moving up. They are not disadvantaged at childhood.

The Trojan Horse to Fight Racism

In many ways democratic socialism or social democracy is the trojan horse to fight racism. If you end extreme poverty for all races, then you will also end many of the problems driving racism.

Let us be honest. The overrepresentation of blacks on crime statistics is not alone due to racism. Or rather if it was that would be remarkable. Poor people are always overrepresented on crime statistics and thus because more blacks are poor, they are naturally overrepresented.

This helps drive white fear of blacks and ultimately racism. If you take away poverty you also take way a lot of the crime, which also means you take away at least one factor driving racism.

Please don’t misread me. I am not suggesting that if blacks where model citizens, racism would not have existed. Jews know that all too well. So does the citizens of the successful black town Tulsa.

But this is about being a pragmatist. This is about finding a wedge in. A way to dismantle racism one stone at a time. Anything that helps us chip away at it, should be explored. The racism that is left when African-Americans are no longer overrepresented on any negative statistics will be much easier to tackle.

The racists will run out of arguments. They cannot as easily point fingers and blame blacks when there isn’t much to point fingers at supported by any statistics.

The Trojan Horse Against Police Brutality

The same goes for the kind of police brutality that killed George Floyd. One needs to emphasize that police brutality also affects whites. But one has to be careful about how this story is sold.

I have seen plenty of conservative white Americans use police brutality against whites as an argument against police brutality against blacks being a real problem. Don’t let them turn such a story into a fight about who gets brutalized more. Instead seize the opportunity and say “So you can see police brutality is a real problem? Why don’t you join me in fighting for reform?”

Tesla’s Multi-Step Strategy

Tesla began selling sports cars to rich people. Then they sold fancy sedan’s to less affluent people until they made the Tesla Model 3 which almost anybody in the middle class could buy.

They didn’t start by trying to make a cheap mass market car for everybody. Likewise we got to tackle racism where we can most quickly gain ground and impact. We got to go for the low hanging fruit rather than trying to climb at the top of the apple tree from the get-go.

The shame-and-blame white people strategy is the equivalent of trying to make a Think EV. It may in theory makes the most impact but it has such low buy-in that in the end it has very little real impact.

Do you Have Feedback?

If you have feedback to this story, what I would really appreciate is constructive suggestions for how to tackle racism. Ideas not widely discussed e.g. Let us try to avoid throwing insults at each other. Instead let us find solutions together.

Although I am happy to see you tear apart everything I am saying here as long as you can offer a better thought out solution for how to chip away at racism.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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