'Backlash to racial progress': For some, Trump’s strong showing is a sign that bigotry prevails
As the presidential election unfolded over the past few days, Crystal Webster heard colleagues in academia and white progressive friends express their dismay that President Donald Trump initially led in early returns and was still within hailing distance of reelection Wednesday.
Webster, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio who specializes in race relations, was hardly surprised at Trump’s polls-defying level of support, even amid a pandemic and an economic downturn.
“For people of color who, like me, have been living in this reality for a while now, we have a more cynical outlook,’’ said Webster, who is Black.
The protest movement against racial inequality and injustice that proliferated throughout the U.S. after the death of George Floyd and gained momentum with the fatal shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery raised hopes for major changes in how America deals with race.
Many expected those changes to begin with an electoral repudiation of Trump, who during his term in office has courted white supremacists and far-right groups like the Proud Boys, whom he advised to “stand back and stand by’’ during the first presidential debate.
Instead, Trump defied projections that had him behind by 8-10 percentage points in the general election and losing most battleground states – possibly even getting routed. Instead, he has ridden what was likely strong support among white voters to a photo finish in the race with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Contrary to what some Republicans feared, Trump did not drag down the ballot, and the GOP looks primed to retain control of the Senate.
Webster finds the notion that about half the country supports Trump’s views “very alarming,’’ and worries about her loved ones living among people who share those ideas, even if Biden ends up winning.
“It feels as though we’re in the throes of experiencing backlash to racial progress,’’ Webster said. “I think some of this is backlash against President Obama’s election and the changing demographics of this country, and even the mobilization of progressive movements we experienced this summer with Black Lives Matter. I think Trump’s base has really mobilized around that and has taken up his call and embraced the white supremacy that he has unabashedly espoused.’’
Webster noted that historically there hasn’t been a strong electoral rejection of white supremacy in a country where white people make up about 62% of the population and control the majority of the levers of power.
According to CNN polls, 1 in 3 voters ranked the economy as their leading concern, with racial equality second but considerably further back, named as the top issue by 1 out of every 5.
Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, said he didn’t expect the widespread calls for an end to systemic racism that reverberated through summer demonstrations would carry over to the ballot box.
“I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about the translation of millennial activism and Gen Z activism into votes,’’ Tillery said. “For them, protesting and voting and posting online, it’s all pretty much in the same realm. So you may have people who went out and protested for 30, 40, 50 days but didn’t vote.’’
Tillery said exit polls indicated millennials – those ages 24 to 39 – accounted for 18%-25% of the votes and would have needed to raise that number closer to 40% for Biden to win in the landslide some predicted.
But Tillery was heartened by the turnout of Black voters, who are believed to have played a critical role in the Democratic victory in Michigan – with close to 90% voting for Biden – and might help the party flip Georgia.
While the votes were still getting counted in key states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, Black Lives Matter Global Network released a statement from executive director Patrisse Cullors.
“We must fight to make sure every vote is counted, because there is too much at stake for Black people and for our movement to stop fighting now,’’ said Cullors, who highlighted the electoral victories of Black candidates across the country. “We don’t know who won the presidential race, but we can celebrate the wins that have allowed us to put the power back into the hands of the people.’’
That’s how it’s supposed to work in a democracy, but Tillery warned that the U.S. version of it will continue to be dragged down by the country’s deep divisions, which include issues of race but also extreme partisanship and urban vs. rural perspectives.
“It’s going to be really hard to keep multiracial democracy together if we have this deep polarization,’’ Tillery said. “That’s worrisome, even though I think Biden will take power.’’