The Limits of Racial Progress: Obama, Clinton, Trump, & Sanders: Why Some Whites Shifted to Trump & What That Tells Us About Racism In America Today

For Many white Americans, a candidate of color who stays away from focusing on racial issues or from pushing whites on such issues (Obama) is fine, but a candidate, white or otherwise, who makes racial issue major parts of her campaign and pushes whites to adapt to racial realities (Clinton), not so much; this was certainly a deciding factor in Trump’s victory, perhaps the decisive factor.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse November 16, 2016

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) November 16th, 2016 Updated December 3rd w/ additional exit poll data

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

AMMAN — Many people are perplexed as to how white people who apparently voted for Obama in recent elections voted for Trump in this one (Update 12/3: Clinton apparently mostly turned off these white voters to stay home or vote third-party, much less than to switch their vote to Trump; the below analysis still makes sense in that even the movement away from her supports its conclusions about race). Others say this proves those people can’t be racist, since they voted for a black president. The first issue is actually easy to explain, and the second assertion is easy to refute; both points lie in the same understanding of what happened in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

Why Obama Was Acceptable to Some Whites, but Not Clinton

When Obama ran in 2008, he didn’t frame himself heavily as the first African-American president, and he didn’t frame his campaign as one what would give any special attention or cater to African-Americans, Hispanics, or other minorities. In fact, he engaged in what was mainly a post-racial, race-neutral campaign that many white voters found to be a welcome and inspirational message; many of them thought how nice it would be to move beyond the past and the issue of racism, in general, leaving conversations on the issue to history. In 2012, Obama stuck to not campaigning explicitly as a black president and to not paying any significant particular attention to the issues and needs of minority communities; his was a broad message, except in one sense: he certainly campaigned in a way that catered to the needs of women. But women aren’t a minority. And, again, a black man with liberal inclinations easily won minorities in roughly sharing their skin complexion and more or less sharing their general politics, and won well more than enough votes among whites with an uplifting message that, once again, avoided any focus on specific racial or ethnic minorities. And in his two terms as president, he did little to focus on minority issues apart apart from some action on immigration (blocked in the Supreme Court) and some fine speechesas opposed to action—on race relations; the nation’s first black president did not even nominate a black person for the Supreme Court, instead nominating a Latina, a white woman, and a white man (the last almost certain not to be appointed).

We know that in 2016, Hillary Clinton, a white woman, ran a campaign that definitely catered to specific needs and issues of minority voters—even explicitly pushing white Americans to open their minds, eyes, and ears to the plight of people of color—and also basically ran to continue many of Obama’s policies that voters had validated in 2012; she practically launched her campaign with an amazing speech on race, boldly challenging America to do better by its communities of color, and made this one of her major issues throughout the campaign. She performed very well with African-Americans, although not quite as high as Barack Obama (which was never going to happen since she was not the first African-American major-party nominee, and this may have in part been due to a massive long-term GOP effort towards voter suppression in the first presidential campaign since key parts of the Voting Rights Act protecting minorities were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013), and did better with Latinos than any candidate ever better analysis is examined than exit polls, which are relatively poor at measuring Latinos.

The New York Times

Her white support fell and Trump’s went up, falling for her and rising for him sharply in key geographic areas in the Rust Belt: whites who had supported Obama stayed home and/or different whites that were motivated positively by Trump and negatively by Clinton came out and voted (obviously, a combination of these). Trump beat Clinton by 21 points (58%-37%) among whites, while Romney had beaten Obama with whites by 20 points (59%-39%), a 1 point decline for Trump but a 2 point decline for Clinton, not insignificant considering whites are 70% of the electorate. Trump’s victory included beating her by 32 points with white men (63%-21%), even beating her by 10 points with white women (53%-43%), and even beating her with college-educated whites by 4 points (49%-45%), including 45% of college-educated white women to Clinton’s 51%. Even though Clinton is on pace to receive at least the second-most votes in history of any candidate after Obama and has already now come in at least 1 million votes ahead of Trump, with millions more to be counted, the difference among white voters in key counties in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa gave Trump the electoral math he needed to triumph in the Electoral College and win the presidency.

Either way, the lesson is clear: in 2008 and 2012, racism in America had evolved so that enough whites out there were willing to vote for a black candidate. But in 2016, there were not enough whites willing to support a white woman who promised to give some special attention and resourcing to people of color. So, a black candidate is fine as long as that candidate isn’t asking white America to accept any responsibility, special attention, or resourcing for disadvantaged persons of color, to sacrifice anything for them or even to admit through any substantive action that people of color have it worse and deserve special attention; a white candidate that speaks “hard truth” about race and the need for special attention to groups of color who have been especially discriminated against by white people is a bridge too far for millions of white people in 2016.

As a white woman, Clinton could not take minority support for granted; she absolutely needed to court, and cater, to minorities’ needs and concerns in order to earn their support. As a black man, Obama did not need to to this, and could, more or less, take their support for granted; it was white America that he needed to aggressively court, on which his candidacy would rise or fall. In the end, Clinton’s gamble was that enough white voters would accept a white candidate who gave such special focus and attention to minorities; in the end, they did not, and she lost.

In other words, there are enough whites comfortable enough voting for a black president as long as that president doesn’t emphasize his blackness to them, doesn’t ask them to come down from their perch from which they can look down on minorities, or doesn’t suggest he will apply any particular energy to helping people of color.

*****

The New Racism

This is the new, modern form of racism; there’s plenty of the old, more obvious and outward racism, but the new racism is accepting of people of color so long as they don’t ask for justice and accept their place without seeking any government redress or leadership to help them with their problems. The new racism is pretending that those problems aren’t any worse than those, on average, faced by white people. The new racism is being willfully ignorant of how history, policy, and politics are front and center in the disproportionate suffering of people of color. The new racism is a total denial of white responsibility or agency in the suffering of people of color. 

Those espousing the new racism, some of them could support the black guy who sounded white and didn’t talk about black people much, but they deserted a white woman who wanted to continue the black guy’s policies because, in their view, she talked too much about people of color and wanted the nation as a whole to address their plight directly. 

The old racists—those who would burn crosses if that was still a thing and who hurl epithets in private and sometimes public—exist, and there are plenty of them. And the new racists and the old racists united, especially in key places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Michigan, and Florida; that is a major reason why Trump won, is probably the main reason why Clinton’s support among whites fell.

In case this is not obvious, they fled her to vote for a candidate who, if not openly espousing racism (and that itself would be a controversial assertion), openly played with racism, racial resentment, and undercurrents of racism and hired an outward racist to be one of the two most powerful people in his campaign in the closing months of the campaign, and has now named this personSteve Bannon of the racist, despicable Breitbart News—as one of his two most powerful White House advisors.

In case it’s still not obvious, after Trump was elected, there was and still is open wave of hateful racism and bigotry hurled by white Trump supporters at various minorities, often graffiti and words, but also including some violent incidents, as if Trump’s election somehow validated such behavior: over 400 incidents in less than 6 days from Wednesday, the day after the election, through Monday morning alone.

Still not convinced? People of color overwhelmingly rejected Bernie Sanders and his unrealistic ideology and delusional proposals, though the younger people were, the more support he had with them. Sanders’ message was clear, consistent and extremely narrow: the political revolution, focusing on income inequality and punishing the wealthy and corporations, would bring about success for all, and Sanders repeatedly refused to articulate a message that allowed for specific programs for people of color, or that they were a special group that had suffered more than the white majority; rather, all were equal victims of the rigged system and the wealthy elites who ran it (on a side note, this system for him included the media, and Sanders and his apostles absurdly claimed that if only he and they could educate the masses and bypass media propaganda, they would unite and rise up, regardless of race or religion, and unite in supporting Sanders and his political democratic socialist revolution; this utter nonsense has been dispelled in so many ways, but perhaps most notably by the fact that the United States just elected a man who epitomizes everything Sanders campaigned against).

As was the case with Obama, white liberals loved this race-neutral message, language, and policy program, and flocked to Sanders by huge margins, preferring his one-size-fits-all approach that gave no special consideration to people of color and their special circumstances, and people of color were, conversely, repelled by this. In fact, when Sanders was peaking after New Hampshire, he was pressed by some of his supporters of color and black and Latino activists to make room for special consideration for minorities in his economic message; he adamantly refused, and thus he himself destroyed his own chance of winning the nomination by not adjusting this message before heading into the diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina and other diverse states of the first Super Tuesday, exposing Sanders’ narrow appeal and narrow constituencies for what they were: something that could win about 40% of participants in the Democratic nomination contests but that was incapable of winning that nomination or a general election.

And those who would make the argument that Trump’s win was more about class or economics are making an argument that simply doesn’t hold up, and obviously doesn’t hold up, because, while “working class” whites overwhelmingly favored Trump, people of color—”working class” or otherwise—overwhelmingly rejected Trump. Furthermore, Clinton beat Trump by 11 points (52%-41%) among all voters who made less than $50,000 a year and even beat trump by 4 points (49%-45%) among all voters who made less than $100,000 annually (UPDATE 12/3: Further fuel to the argument that this was less about economics and more about race: among voters who said the economy was the most important issue, Clinton beat Trump by 11 points nationally and in every swing state that Trump won: she beat him among those voters by 4 points in Pennsylvania, by 3 points in Ohio, by 8 points in Michigan, by 11 points in Wisconsin, by 3 points in Florida, and by 7 points in North Carolina, and even by 2 points in Iowa and 2 points in Arizona).

A Win for White Nationalism &, Therefore, Racism

In elevating Trump to the Republican Party presidential nomination and then to the presidency, Americans basically validated white denial and the concept that white victimhood is the most glaring, most deserving of attention of all ethnic and racial victimhoods; in other words, Trump’s wins were victories for white exclusivist nationalism, in hindsight hardly surprising as a wave of ethno-centric nationalisms takes over democracies all over the world, from India and Israel to Turkey and Hungary to Poland and Bulgaria. In Trump’s America, white Americans—as they see themselves—are a racial group like any other racial group in that they are oppressed and need to unite and fight for their rights or suffer the consequences; such delusion and denial of white privilege, such zero-sum exclusivist thinking, is not only now mainstream, it is a unifying thread for the vast majority of Trump’s voters, whether conscious or unconscious.

Some may say that what was here termed the new racism isn’t really racism at all. And those people are wrong. To willfully deny that there is racism today and that certain groups of people suffer from it today still, to deny that historical racism is still affecting certain groups today because of persistent generational effects that a racist system and racist institutions inflicted upon them have a long half-life and don’t simply vanish at the passing of a law, to deny that it is harder to be black or brown in America than it is to be white, to deny that white people have huge advantages over people of color even if they are poor themselves (admittedly a hard sell but still absolutely, demonstrably, indisputably true regardless the poor socio-economic condition a good many whites), or to accept any of these but to simply say that nothing should be done to deal with these past and present realities—in essence saying a big “who cares, not my problem,” which is de facto saying those people should just accept their inferior status and that we as a nation owe them nothing despite such a long, brutal history of and continuing mistreatment—is clearly racism. Stubborn and willful ignorance is also racism because that perpetuates inaction, which perpetuates a system that discriminates people of color and keeps whites at an elevated status. Such beliefs outlined here clearly favor whites over people of color, and stubborn and willfully advocating inaction on injustice for entire groups of people of color is basically pushing for continued white favor, privilege, and superiority no matter how you frame such beliefs. If you refuse to accept reality that people of color do suffer absolutely and proportionately from racism in ways that whites do not, or if you refuse to accept that basic ethics and morality means that justice is owed and continues to be owed to such people until the effects of racism are obliterated, then this is actually active support for racism and a racist system. And when a person votes in such a way as to perpetuate either of these dual refusals, if means that vote goes towards actively perpetuating the social and economic superiority of white people over people of color, to at least maintain or perhaps even expand the benefits, advantages, and privileges that whites currently enjoy over their fellow citizens of color.

The New Racism Is the New Normal (Democratic Fascism?)

As I wrote earlier, this is utterly banal and such ethnic and racial and religious politics are common all over the world today; conservatives in America are particularly fond of claiming America and Americans are exceptional, but in this, they are depressingly normal. What is clear is that many white Americans were ok with a black candidate who avoided making race a centerpiece of his candidacy and presidency but were not OK with a white candidate who wanted to push white America to be more racially conscious and put racial justice and racial inequality at the center of hers; even worse, over her they chose Trump, who ran the most racist campaign since archsegregationist George Wallace and whose raises the disturbing question of “Is he really that racist, or just using racism to win?” Either way, Americans of color are terrified, and they have every right to be.

Welcome to racism in American in 2016: a terrifying mix of the old and new that could lead to what I call democratic fascism. But more on that another time…

A comment I posted in the comment section shortly after publication:
More analysis, this from FiveThirtyEight, backing up the idea that Clinton lost in part because voters stayed home, not so much switched parties.

See related article: Republic of Georgia Shows Trump & His Fans Depressingly Normal: Just Another Ethno-centric Nationalist Movement

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