Things I’ve Worked On: Electoral Race

It seems as though everything I write these days is related to Donald Trump, but a presidential election mixed with celebrity, divisiveness, and conspiracy is simply too monumental a socio-political event to not dissect. This entry will focus on race, which has already suffered a huge loss of coverage by mainstream media.

Days after the election, there seemed to have been a very intense debate about whether the 2016 presidential election was a form of whitelash/nativism or the resistance of the white middle class from being forgotten (all of this notwithstanding the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote comfortably). One camp argued that voting for a man who had said such racist things could not be interpreted as anything else but condoning, if not supporting, racism. The other argued that the white middle class felt forgotten and reacted by electing the most profound manifestation of change offered by the system in many years, in spite of his many flaws. If mainstream media and the powers that be have their way, 2016 will be remembered exclusively as the latter, the year Democrats completely forgot about and then were painfully reminded of the power of the white middle class.

There is considerable truth to this interpretation, but there is an important caveat that bears repeating over and over again: This election may have not been significantly more about race than any other past election, but that is not to say that race didn’t matter. It is to say that race has always mattered or, more specifically, that a huge portion of the American population, including both Republicans and Democrats, continue to hold deeply problematic views towards race. And believing that race was a factor only this time is giving them far too much credit.

Certainly, race was perceived differently in this election in that it was not draped by the thin veil of meritocracy. The conservative argument was not about an unimpeded free market, where everyone, regardless of race, is assumed to have had an equal shot at education, finances, community, social support, and thus success. But the distinction between the contents of this view and Trump’s is gossamer (although, admittedly, Trump’s is packaged with and inspires greater vitriol), and the idea that the former is not racially insensitive, or at least completely dismissive of the historical and present role of race, takes some rather tenuous rationalizing.

Assuming a generation is 25 years, the following is a  broad timeline of black progress and drawbacks in America.

Generations since major events in U.S. black history.

2017-09-01 (16)

Considering just how exceptional a person has to be to end up in a situation significantly better than that of their parents [1], these periods are not long. Barely two generations have passed since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which means many of our parents were born in a world where it did not exist. Now compare this to the fact that 81% of white Americans do not believe in reparations,  75% do not believe that race should be considered in college admissions, and 68% believe in the death penalty (despite black people being disproportionately executed). All of these percentages suggest that the median voter has likely long been on the wrong side of issues affecting black people.

But what about Obama? President Barack Obama was exceptional in every sense of the word, so for him to be the standard-bearer of the progress of people of color is deeply unforgiving. That a scrupulous family man, a brilliant professor, and one of the greatest communicators of our time can succeed is a standard few if any of us would be able to live up to. And in fact, the argument that has been used to defend moderate Trump supporters–that they elected Trump in spite of the fact that he was racist–can also be used to condemn them–perhaps they elected Obama in spite of the fact that he was black. My guess is history will look unfavorably to the United States’ views towards race during all of the early 2000s, not just the 2016 election, because American exceptionalism, not just Trump’s version, has long excepted people of color from its promise.

[1] Studies abound documenting the predictive ability of parents’ income in determining a child’s income. See, for example, this study.

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