Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Race and the 2020 Elections

As we enter the final weeks before the U.S. elections, the stakes could not be higher. Against the backdrop of a surging pandemic, the country continues to experience record unemployment, small-business closures, and other forms of economic insecurity. Environmental calamities grow increasingly common and intense. State violence against Black bodies continues unabated, and human rights abuses mount in ICE detention centers. The federal judiciary—including the U.S. Supreme Court—is dominated by judges appointed by the Republican Party, which has taken advantage of structural imbalances throughout the system—in the electoral college and U.S. Senate, among other places—to maintain power despite representing a minority of voters. In a country where non-white citizens make up greater proportions of the electorate, and despite the presence of several women and ethnic-minority candidates in the Democratic primaries, we have a presidential race between two white men in their seventies. The sitting president has, in the event of a loss, refused to guarantee a peaceful transition of power. He has repeatedly signaled his support of white-supremacy extremists and is calling on his supporters to “monitor” polling sites in the attempt to intimidate voters in battleground states. As early voting begins around the country, long lines, fake ballot boxes, and technological breakdown threaten the ability of citizens, particularly in Black and minority communities, to register and vote. At the same time, we also see powerful resistance, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the many voters overcoming great obstacles to cast their ballots.    

Cambridge editors Sara Doskow, Cecelia Cancellaro, and Matt Gallaway spoke to several Cambridge University Press authors about the upcoming elections and how racial conflict and racial inequality shape our politics. They bring a range of perspectives from law, politics, and history.

Sara Doskow (@SaraDoskow): I spoke to six political scientists who have written important books over the last three years on race and ethnicity in American politics. I asked them what they are thinking about as the election approaches and what lessons they would like people to draw from their research. 

Andrea Benjamin (@ProfBenjamin), author of Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Cues and Cross-Ethnic Voting: “For the 2020 election, I am thinking about Local politics, like I do most days.  Local politics may not be as flashy as National or State politics, but I believe those elections are just as important, if not more! The decisions that are made by city councils, county commissions, and school boards have real consequences for our day to day lives.  Plus, there are so many local elections, even in the years where we don’t elect a president. It can be hard to keep up.  In my book, Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Cues and Cross-Ethnic Voting, I explore cues that Black and Latino voters can use in nonpartisan mayoral elections and show that Blacks and Latinos rely on endorsements from co-ethnic leaders when casting their ballots, especially when race and ethnicity are salient in the campaign. As we prepare to vote in 2020, I want to encourage everyone to do their research on the down ballot races and find candidates that you think will represent you well.”

Bernard Fraga (@blfraga), author of The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America: “At the beginning of 2020, national polls indicated historically high levels of voter interest and enthusiasm about voting in the upcoming presidential election. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of Americans to modify their voting plans and forced campaigns to reassess tried-and-true mobilization strategies. These shifts will likely have a disproportionate impact on racial/ethnic minority voters, and could exacerbate the longstanding disparities in voter turnout that I identify in my book The Turnout Gap. Candidates and organizations must compensate by working even harder to empower and engage Black, Latinx, and Asian American voters, but we might not know if these efforts were enough until well after Election Day.”

Zoltan Hajnal, author of Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics: “Americans are increasingly aware of the structural racism that underlies the criminal justice system.  Yet there has been relatively less attention to the biases that undergird American democracy.  I hope that my research is able to convince Americans of the unequal nature of our democracy.  I also hope that once individual Americans recognize these inequities, they begin to act. If Americans are willing to act, I believe my research can illuminate a clear path forward. I show that when Democrats control government, representation is more balanced and racial inequality in well-being declines.”  

Ashley Jardina (@AshleyJardina), author of White Identity Politics: “In 2016, Donald Trump capitalized on both the anxiety many white Americans had about the country’s growing diversity and on the animosity many whites had toward racial and ethnic minorities. Trump has been similarly poised to appeal to these sentiments in the wake of a summer of protests over racial inequality and police brutality, as support for the Black Lives Matter Movement unfortunately begins to wane among many white Americans. But these issue have also been eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic and people’s fears about the virus. By threatening to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in the midst of the pandemic, Trump may have put himself in a difficult position with many of his white supporters who actually wanted more health care for their group, not less.”   

Nazita Lajevardi (@NazitaLajevardi), author of Outsiders at Home: The Politics of American Islamophobia: “Muslims are often ignored in our discussions on exclusion and discrimination in American politics, but this is a gross oversight: since 9/11, and increasingly throughout the 2016 election and beyond, the status of Muslims in American politics is worrisome. In recent times, Muslims were among the first to be targeted by the Trump campaign and administration: e.g., Islamophobia played an important role in shaping Trump support in the 2016 election, in his first year in office Trump implemented three versions of a travel ban targeting citizens from Muslim majority countries, and the number of anti-Muslim hate groups rose for the third straight year—from 101 chapters to 114 in 2017. These days, the President normalizes anti-Muslim hate by empowering alt-right groups like the Proud Boys, changing immigration laws targeting some Muslim nations through arguably unconstitutional executive orders, and by regularly attacking, and often jeopardizing the lives of, the two freshmen Muslim female Members of Congress — Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Looking forward, I worry that Muslim lives could possibly deteriorate more in this nation; Muslims civil liberties may continue to be violated, their physical safety may continue to be at risk, a Muslim registry may be implemented, immigration laws may continue to exclude them from the country and polity, and that their birthright citizenship may be revoked.”

Davin Phoenix (@Davin_Phoenix), author of The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics: “Conventional wisdom holds that the negative emotions that seem to capture the tenor of the current election season, specifically anger, drive people to increase their political activity. But in my book I find that it is not anger but the positive emotions of pride and hope that best drive Black, Latinx and Asian Americans to take up actions that influence election outcomes. Here’s the challenge: these groups are contending with the disproportionate toll of COVID-19, vigorous voter suppression and disinformation campaigns targeted at people of color, and continued struggles to advance racial justice in the criminal justice system. Will the collective emotional state during voting season be one of hope and pride, or one of profound fatigue? The election outcome may hinge on the degree to which voters of color feel sufficiently optimistic about the prospects of a new political regime, as opposed to feeling resigned to a political system that continues to produce sentiments of disappointment and disenfranchisement.”

Cecelia Cancellaro (@ccancellaro):  As a people, we too often fail to consider history as we confront the issues facing us today. I asked some of the historians whose powerful work we have or will be publishing if they would offer some comments about lessons people might take from history when thinking about the place of race and/or racial conflict in American democracy, particularly as it relates to the upcoming election. 

Erica Ball (@Erica_L_Ball), editor, with Tatiana Seijas and Terri L. Snyder, of As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas: “When we look at nineteenth and twentieth-century US history, we see a pattern: whether we are talking about the actions of individuals, state-level mandates, or the official activities of political parties, we see efforts to prevent African Americans from participating in the political process. We can also identify moments where direct appeals to racism are employed in political advertisements. In other words, when we take the long view, we see that anti-blackness has played a role in American elections since the early nineteenth century.”

“At the same time, my research shows that despite attempts to limit African American access to the full rights of citizenship, people of African descent never stopped insisting on defining, claiming, and experiencing freedom in all its fullness, even against the most terrible of odds. Our book demonstrates that women of African descent sought to achieve, claim, and experience freedom in all its fullness for centuries. They never defined freedom in the narrowest of terms – as simply the absence of slavery – but rather, they sought freedom from bodily harm, safety for their families and communities, fair wages and economic opportunity, and full inclusion in the body politic. They refused the limits that the powers-that-be imposed on them; instead they pressed for change. These historical subjects may not have always employed the same strategy or followed the same path, but they believed that freedom was something that could be achieved, if not for themselves, then for the next generation.”

Yesenia Barragan (@Y_Barragan), author of Freedom’s Captives: Slavery and Gradual Emancipation on the Colombian Black Pacific (forthcoming): “Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have pushed the agenda of police and prison abolition to the fore of American politics. By grounding this political argument against oppressive and structurally racist institutions in the deep history of slavery and white supremacy, the movement has forced us to grapple with the past while confronting injustice today. Undoubtedly, with the growth of white militias and increasing fascist violence in this country, the stakes of this election are high. But such a macro, longue durée perspective on racial injustice and resistance should serve as a reminder that solutions do not come easily and that the struggle against the afterlife of slavery will continue regardless of who inhabits the White House.”

Ariela Gross (@arielagross), author, with Alejandro de la Fuente, of Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana: “Our book shows the way US law drew a link between citizenship and whiteness that has been enormously difficult to break. Even after the end of slavery, when the Fourteenth Amendment conferred US citizenship and the equal protection of the laws on the formerly enslaved, and the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination in voting on the basis of race, white Southern legislatures and courts found ways to keep Black people from the polls. Jim Crow laws and practices designed to exclude Black people from public life were modeled on the restrictions on the lives and liberties of free people of color that Southern states imposed before the Civil War, and that baked racism into their laws. Today, we are seeing a resurgence of voter suppression aimed at Black people, especially but not only in Southern states, that taps into this very same deadly tradition, tying full citizenship to whiteness. The protections of the Reconstruction Amendments, which were finally given effect by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (sometimes called the Second Reconstruction), have been eviscerated by a reactionary Supreme Court. If the hearings taking place today result in another Republican seat on the Court, we can be sure that this trend will continue. It is now up to the people to take back our government, to repudiate this racist legal regime, and to set in motion a Third Reconstruction.”

Keri Leigh Merritt (@KeriLeighMerrit) author of the award-winning Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and currently working on a new documentary on the American Civil War): “As a historian of race and racism, I always knew that white backlash after the first Black President would be particularly widespread and likely violent. And while the importance of the 2020 election cannot be overstated, as we attempt to vote and take concerted actions to save our country from disaster, we must also take time to reflect upon the past, because combatting racism is much more complicated than this election. It is important to reconceptualize our beliefs about whether we have ever had a democracy in America. At the worst of times, “democracy” has meant that the wealthiest landholding white men participated politically. At the best of times, it has meant classist and racist voter suppression, intimidation, and disfranchisement. Instead of focusing on one election, we must see this current moment as part of a broader movement for both civil and suffrage rights, finding hope in the stories of all the freedom fighters who came before us. Their wisdom – the wisdom of time and of history – will guide the way forward.”

Matt Gallaway (@matthewgallaway): Not long after the 2016 election, I signed Terry Smith, then a law professor at DePaul, to write a book about the ways that our country could—and should!—invalidate elections in which racism is determined to be a deciding factor. Terry’s goal was to write the book in time for the 2020 election, and while he made good on that promise by publishing Whitelash: Unmasking White Grievance at the Ballot Box in February, he tragically and unexpectedly died three months later. To highlight his groundbreaking book, I spoke to several of his colleagues about the importance of Terry’s work for the upcoming election and the place of racial conflict—and resistance—in American democracy. Here are their answers:

Darren Hutchinson (@dissentingj): “Professor Terry Smith’s Whitelash provides a rich framework for analyzing the upcoming presidential election. Smith’s thoughtful discussion of the Electoral College and dilution of Black and Latino votes reveals the racial dimensions of the winner-take-all system used by most states. Smith demonstrates that candidates who win presidential elections despite losing the popular vote benefit from the substantial discounting of minority votes. Whitelash also supplies context for discussing the confirmation of federal judges and “court-packing.” Smith persuasively argues that the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and the Senate gives the Republican Party disproportionate influence on judicial appointments. Smith’s research provides a legitimate basis for several reforms, including expansion of federal courts, proportional allocation of electoral votes, and selection of senators by district voting. Finally, Whitelash powerfully demonstrates the influence of racism in white voter preferences. Repeating a strategy he used in 2016, President Trump has made racism a core feature of his campaign. Whitelash can serve as an important resource for examining the impact of racism on the 2020 voters and proposing remedies to ameliorate this pervasive wrong.”

Bennett Capers (@BennettCapers): “Race matters in elections, whether it’s in dog whistles like Willie Horton ads, birther conspiracies, or calls for “law and order” and to “Make America Great Again.” Race mattes too in how we vote. Terry Smith’s Whitelash goes beyond these simple truths to ask a series of provocative questions about elections and our anti-discrimination norms: If we do not allow government actors to discriminate on the basis of race, why should we allow voters to discriminate on the basis of race in electing those government actors? Are there tools we might borrow from anti-discrimination law to ascertain whether voters are indeed casting votes based on racial animus? And lastly, assuming animus in voting exists and can be proved, what do we do about it? Readers may not agree with all of Smith’s arguments, but Whitelash will definitely get them thinking.” (Bennett Capers is also co-editor of Critical Race Judgments: Rewritten Court Opinions on Race and the Law, forthcoming from CUP in 2021.)

Audrey McFarlane: “The lesson I took from Whitelash is that we need a structural accounting to address structural racism and save democracy. Amid the misinformation, outrage, and fear that have dominated 2020, a few truths and devastating lessons have emerged. First, post-racialism as a mythic notion has evaporated in the face of racism and anti-racism simultaneously entering the public sphere. Racial resentment, dog whistles, racial clarion calls are openly present in public discourse in a way thought impossible just a few years ago. Simultaneously, structural racism and its contradictions are also part of the public dialogue, giving new recognition to the fact that racism is not merely name-calling or bad thoughts but practices that, when multiplied by the tens of thousands, becomes embedded in the ways we do so many things. Though it was always there, it now gets seen in the repeated cell-phone video of police brutality against Black people, shocking health disparities and death rates, and precarious employment in non-essential service jobs. These items pound relentlessly from the headlines and social media posts, demanding our attention, almost too painful to bear. Yet, the stock market soars. In the 2020 electoral season, we’ve learned that polarization in government is deadly. We’ve learned that limited government is deadly. We’ve learned that impactful voter suppression is easy. We’ve learned that every gap and hole and policy contradiction in our system can be exploited and exploded by a virus. In 2020, the nation stumbled and so many questions have yet to be answered: Why do we have policies that are so inadequate to our needs? Why were there no stockpiles of public health related equipment and medicines? Will we continue along a path of dysfunction or will democracy save our democracy? Whitelash speaks to this moment by explicating the damage and distortions to democracy wrought by race and racism in the United States. Think back to the post-racial era. Though Black Americans were an essential voting bloc for the Democratic party to win elections, the tacit understanding was that addressing their special needs and interests directly or openly would be political suicide. Whitelash explores this tacit understanding and racially-lopsided bargain by taking on white racism in the voting booth. The book audaciously seeks to liberate American politics from racism’s pernicious effects on the society. Drawing upon insights from the most developed body of law on anti-discrimination and employment-discrimination law, Whitelash takes us through a fascinating journey through what we have whispered about, tried to blink away and viewed as inevitable. It ministers powerfully to us with data, it draws connections that few can readily see, and lets us know astoundingly but persuasively we do not have to accept the ill effects of racially-motivated voting. We can hold such voting structurally accountable. More specifically, it tells us that it is wrong and destructive to accept the racial stereotypes of who a candidate’s supporters are and of who the beneficiaries of a candidate’s policies will be, when doing so results in a heavy price to society and to white people themselves in the form of economic and social policies that not only hurt the targets of the racial resentment, but also themselves. Whitelash is a book for this moment because it excavates and distills the structural racism in our politics, making it accessible and visible for the reader in an unusual way. It takes structural racism seriously by explaining which of our political and electoral institutions can be changed immediately to address and offset the structural harm that inevitably results to the polity from racism. The book is convincing.  It leaves the reader little choice but to take racially motivated voting seriously and to understand why it cannot be accepted in a country holding itself out as a democracy.”

Frank Rudy Cooper (@ProfFrankRudy): “An important lesson that Terry Smith taught me was the value of being a full-throated advocate for what is right. Terry did not pull punches in discussing white racism. In Whitelash, he accused white culture of pervasively supporting white supremacy and whites of often voting to support white supremacy. And his words are important because they take an unvarnished position. He would have been less impactful if he had been yet another person who pulled his punches, but Terry showed his love for justice by brooking no false peace. (Frank Rudy Cooper is also co-editor of Fight the Power: Law and Policy Solutions in Hip Hop Verses, forthcoming from CUP in 2021.)

MG: Finally, I spoke to Eugene Mazo, co-editor of The Best Candidate: Presidential Nomination in Polarized Times, which discusses the law behind the modern presidential nomination process and offers ideas for how it can be improved. As someone who recently ran as a progressive in a Democratic primary in an effort to unseat an incumbent, Eugene has personal and scholarly insight into why our nominating system is so flawed. I asked him what insights can be taken from his book about the need to increase the numbers of women and ethnic minorities on the ballot.

Eugene Mazo (@eugenemazo): “In 2020, a total of six women sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination: in addition to Kamala Harris, they were Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Marianne Williamson. In a chapter called “Women and the Presidency,” Cynthia Richie Terrell (@CynthiaRTerrell) argues that the media’s relentless focus on the number of women who sought the presidency in 2020 masks the structural inequalities in our political system, which are heavily tilted toward men. As a country, we focus on these inequalities most often in the presidential context, but they exist at every stage of the political system when it comes to electing women. Women face a disadvantage in fundraising, which because it most often comes from small donors means that securing it takes more time and effort. Also, studies show that union and corporate PACs tend to underfund women candidates. Another barrier that women candidates face can be seen in the recruitment efforts of political parties. Parties are the gatekeepers of politics. When they show a reluctance to accept women candidates, they create a barrier to entry. The U.S. electoral system also does not favor women. Majoritarian systems that elect a winner by a plurality of the vote tend to prefer men as politicians. As a result, only 44 women have ever served as governor in U.S. history. Finally, the media disadvantages women who seek higher office. Studies have shown that media coverage of women who run for public office tends to focus on the family roles of women, on the appearance of women candidates, and on women’s issues. This, in turn, affects how the public views and judges these women. All of these disadvantages are amplified when the candidate is Black. The presidential debates are another big problem. As former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel (@AnnMRavel)—currently running for California State Senate—and co-author Charlotte Hill (@hill_charlotte) argue in “Democratizing the Presidential Debates,” the debates have been hostile to women and ethnic-minority candidates alike. Ravel and Hill argue that our presidential debates shape our public perceptions of the presidency and explain how practices that exclude women and people of color from the process perpetuate the perception that white men are better suited for office. When it comes to the vice presidency, at least, that perception will be tested this November.”

For additional reading, please check out our collection of election-oriented books on Cambridge Core.

–by CC SD MG and Senior Marketing Executive Paris West

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