Race makes our politics irrational and political debates into fights for survival. The right pretends all Democrats are radical nihilists bent on destroying families and faith; Democrats too often show nothing but contempt for those who are whipped up by malicious charlatans and political manipulators. It makes it impossible to converge on reality or work on mutually beneficial solutions.
The problem is not a matter of “messaging” or political strategy. “The strong consensus is that fears about demographic and cultural change are a significantly stronger predictor of support for Trump among white working-class and white evangelical voters," says Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “White Too Long.” “Even Trump’s trademark slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ has been mostly understood through the lens of preserving and protecting a White Christian America from immigrants and African Americans, who Trump portrayed as threatening forces ‘invading’ the country and increasing crime in white suburbs.” Convincing Trump supporters that they’ve got their facts wrong or that their leader is a con man won’t work. He provides them some form of solace and feeling of empowerment that they crave in a world in which they have no particular claim to wealth, power or privilege.
Nor is this about globalization and economic dislocation, although economics might aggravate resentments. “Trump’s advantage among voters reporting over $100,000 in family income is actually consistent with these findings, since the theory in 2016 was that Trump’s economic appeal was to those disaffected, struggling workers at the bottom of the income spectrum,” Jones tells me. “And that’s just not the pattern we see.”
White Republicans and their political flacks will tell Democrats that talking about race just alienates Whites from the Democratic Party. But ignoring the real inequities in society and refusing to address systemic racism is not the answer. “White avoidance of conversations about racial equality is itself a manifestation of white supremacy,” says Jones. “Silence in the face of injustice reflects an indifference to the suffering of others and a tacit support of a system that perpetuates these inequalities.” He adds: “The exit polls also provide a window into how the legacy of white supremacy is deeply dividing our country. There’s no way at this time to break findings on racial attitudes out by religion from the early exit polls, but the divides in vote choice by racial attitudes are stark and unsettling.”
Jones’s book and the 2020 American Values Survey confirm 58 percent of voters favor the Black Lives Matter movement, 71 percent see racism as an important problem in America and 53 percent think the criminal justice system treats Black people unfairly. However, Jones says, “among the sizable minority of Americans who disagree with each of these statements, more than 80 percent voted for Donald Trump” in 2016. Race is even more important than abortion to these voters. Jones concludes: “White supremacy, the organizing of society based on the lie that White lives are more valuable than Black or brown lives, is America’s original sin that still rends the social fabric of our country. If we’re ever going to ‘end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country,’ as James Baldwin so plainly put it half a century ago, we have to address this history that is stifling our shared future.”
That is the great challenge for Democrats, for cultural “elites” and for those who believe in an inclusive multiracial democracy. We must figure out a way to talk to one another without rancor and resentment, and without the misconception that “giving” something to one group means “taking” away from others. Whites are losing their commanding position in society; that’s the natural progress of a democracy in which diversity is growing and opportunity is not the province of any one demographic. However, alienation, loneliness, economic stress and feelings of persecution are genuine, even if factually not comparable to the threats and biases non-Whites must contend with.
It is critical to acknowledge that this is not purely a political problem. In the early days of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James Lawson and John Lewis promoted what they called “Christian fellowship” — the conviction that nonviolence, love, understanding and empathy must provide the foundation for social change and human rights. (This reflected their own Christian faith, but was ecumenical and embraced those of all faiths or no faith.) The effort to find common ground and to treat others as one would want to be treated requires discussion, familiarity, honesty and goodwill. It requires, as the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, a certain tact with colleagues. “It pays sometimes to be a little deaf,” Ginsburg liked to say, attributing the advice to her mother-in-law. Not all attacks need to be answered; not all insults need even be acknowledged. We must criticize without wounding and debate without dehumanizing our opponents. “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” Ginsburg would say.
The problems of race go far beyond politics, but increasingly our politics requires a strong dose of fellowship, respect and understanding. Joe Biden can be part of the discussion, but it will fall on faith and civic leaders, parents, teachers and community activists to work not merely toward “reconciliation” (which can smack of “let bygones be bygones”) but also toward social justice.
We have to do things together with common purpose, not do things to one another hoping for advantage. It requires restraint and humility. The alternative is endless acrimony, anger and the unraveling of our democracy. If Trump’s defeat can begin the process, then his departure cannot come soon enough. If we do not begin the process, his defeat will have been a tragic missed opportunity.