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Racial issues and the Trump-Biden contest: U of M panel explores the dynamics

Panelist Ashley Jardina said racial issues affect many aspects of the contest, creating an “enormous partisan divide.” LaFleur Stephens-Dougan said the Biden campaign is “not immune to losing support over race among white reactionaries.”

People gather around the newly painted "Black Lives Matter" mural along 5th Avenue outside Trump Tower in Manhattan.
People gather around the newly painted "Black Lives Matter" mural along 5th Avenue outside Trump Tower in Manhattan.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

The University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance put on a Zoom panel of political scientists Wednesday to analyze the rising prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in national politics and how it might interact with the 2020 presidential election.

All but one of the panelists were African-American. None said anything supportive of Donald Trump, perhaps the least-subtly racist president in the past century. They were quite confident that Trump would get little to no support from black voters, but they made no clear predictions on how the election will turn out.

It occurs to me to mention right at the top something that seems obvious, but which dominated the background of the discussion. While large majorities of African-American voters have, since roughly the Franklin D. Roosevelt era, by significant and perhaps growing majorities, voted more for Democrats than Republicans for president, there has been no president in recent history who has relied as openly on barely coded racist appeals as Donald Trump. That’s just me talking, but that fact dominated from the background the panel discussion, except when it dominated from the foreground.

An ‘enormous partisan divide’

Panelist Ashley Jardina of Duke University (the only white scholar on the panel) said that implicitly and explicitly racial issues affect many aspects of the Trump-Biden contest, creating an “enormous partisan divide.” She added that “many white Republicans do hold views that are more racially prejudiced and less supportive of the Black Lives Matters movement” than in any previous election.  

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LaFleur Stephens-Dougan of Princeton added that the Joe Biden campaign is “not immune to losing support over race among white reactionaries.”

Christopher Parker of the University of Washington said that fears of black people among many white voters were activated by the 2008 election of the first black president. “It was [Barack] Obama and everything he represents that occasioned the rise of the Tea Party,” he said. It’s a pattern that “goes back to Reconstruction” [in the post-Civil War period]. “Anything that helps black people has a backlash,” he said, adding: “If we didn’t have Obama we wouldn’t have Trump. That’s a fact.”

The Confederate flag issue

Parker said the rising display of and defense of the Confederate battle flag by Trump and his supporters is “going to make political violence even worse” during the campaign. The flag, which southerners say is a celebration of their history and identity, really represents “rape and oppression,” Parker said.

According to current trends, in 2050 whites will no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population. University of Minnesota political science professor Michael Minta brought up that fact and suggested that as whites approach the end of their “majority” status, it may increase the degree to which their whiteness represents their “identity,” implying perhaps increased implications for their voting behavior.

Biden has said he will nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court, and pick a woman running mate, and, although he hasn’t committed to choosing a woman of color for veep, there are several on his known list of candidates for that spot. Stephens-Dougan noted that blacks, and especially black women, have been among the most loyal of Democratic voters, implying that such a choice might help reward or motivate that demographic group to back the Democratic ticket.