Not So Black and White: Race in our Politics

Theories, theories and more theories. “The election of Donald Trump is really a kind of class rebellion against people like us,” Fareed Zakaria muses.[1] “Yes, it really was blatant racism that gave us President Donald Trump,” declares[2] “The Comey letter probably cost Clinton the election,” FiveThirtyEight informs us.[3]

Since the 2016 presidential election, many such theories have been pushed to explain why Donald Trump won. The electoral college, Comey, Clinton as a candidate, voter suppression, fake news, poor media accountability, Russian hacking — all of them probably played a role in the election. But something seems trivial about this grab-bag of explanations; we live in a post-election world, and we need to move beyond simply asking questions about the election. Now, it’s time to use the election to ask bigger, system-level questions. And one of them is, quite simply: what role does race play in our politics?

When considering this question, we have to first isolate the dominant reason particular groups of people voted for Donald Trump. In particular, we need to ask why white voters supported him. And of all the explanations for the election, only two are relevant to race: economic anxiety and whitelash.

The core idea of the economic explanation is that we should treat racism as an effect, not a cause.[4][5] In its most nuanced form, it argues that although racism is a motivating factor for some people, race is only a proxy for economic anxiety for the majority of people. The white working class’s anxiety about their rapidly declining economic prospects creates zero-sum thinking, where they feel like other groups only get ahead at their own expense (think affirmative action, immigration), which significantly exacerbates racism and xenophobia.

This is an attractive explanation because economic problems are tractable compared to irrational racism. The political system can’t change people’s minds about minorities, but it can create stronger and more equitable economic growth. Thus, we can best alleviate problems of racism by alleviating economic anxiety — and racism is not a causal factor in this process.

By framing racism through generally-understood incentive structures instead of an unfathomable black box, we are able to find a clear path forward: an economic agenda. We’re already seeing signs that Democrats might turn this way, with Bernie Sanders’ economic policy-focused campaign and his recent single-payer health care bill.

But there’s a second explanation that dissents strongly from this explanation: whitelash. This is the view that racism is a powerful force in American politics, and that Trump is white voters’ tool to erase Obama’s presidency and reclaim power.[6] In a sense, this is Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” quip about Trump supporters. But the whitelash story also hints at a crucial question: Why did odious racism, sexism, incompetence, and volatility not hurt Trump’s support among traditional Republicans? Rather than just looking at the marginal impact of additional white working-class voters, we should examine the Republican base that treated Trump like Romney or Bush instead of dropping him like a hot potato in favor of Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, or any other standard candidate.

According to the whitelash story, many white voters were driven to erase a black president’s legacy because they wanted to keep their relative power. Donald Trump announced his candidacy with a shocking rant against Mexicans, initially refused to renounce KKK leader David Duke’s support, and railed against lazy black people on welfare while simultaneously assuring white workers that he would never cut their welfare. Far from repelling them, this convinced white voters that he was on their side in the race war.

It’s striking how tangential the economic and whitelash stories are. Proponents of the whitelash story call for a moral reckoning with whiteness, but are silent on solutions. Proponents of the economic story want to move past the problem and onto solutions, but are silent on the white voters earning $100,000+ who constituted 20% of Trump’s voters.[7] Both of these stories are incomplete and unsatisfying. But maybe that’s the best we can do when trying to treat 300 million people as a single entity. Maybe we have to accept uncertainty and move forward.

And we do have to move forward, one way or the other, because the question of how to approach race is pivotal to the electoral future of both parties. Republicans must decide whether or not to continue Trump’s legacy of racist politicking to keep his voters; it’s troubling, but the possibility of creating new voters while keeping your already-high base support is a powerful electoral incentive. If the economic story is correct and only working-class voters tolerate racism, then the rest of the Republican base may grow queasy and stay home. But if the whitelash story is correct, they will all stay engaged and the GOP has stumbled upon a new, potent electoral strategy. Democrats must choose between appealing to the white working class and galvanizing their minority voter base. If the economic story is true, then they could seize Trump’s base through a policy agenda that promotes equitable growth while retaining their own base’s support. But if the whitelash story is true, then the only viable strategy for Democrats is to galvanize their base, double down on their commitment to minority protection, and continue the culture war.

Wipe the electoral math off the board, and there’s still a troubling question left. Are the majority of Americans fundamentally racist? One story is optimistic, painting the acceptance of racism as a byproduct of economic motivations that any human could have. The other is pessimistic, painting white America as driven to reclaim (if it ever lost) its power over black America. This is not a question anyone can answer, but it’s a question worth pondering anyway.



[1] Zakaria, Fareed. “Zakaria: Why Trump won.” CNN. August 25, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017.

[2] “New election analysis: Yes, it really was blatant racism that gave us President Donald Trump.” Accessed October 09, 2017.

[3] Silver, Nate. “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election.” FiveThirtyEight. May 03, 2017. Accessed October 12, 2017.

[4] Keep, Lou. “Why We Talk About Economics.” Sam[ ]zdat. June 11, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017.

[5] Alexander, Scott. “Against Murderism.” Slate Star Codex. June 21, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017.

[6] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The First White President.” The Atlantic. September 14, 2017. Accessed October 12, 2017.

[7] “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” The Washington Post. June 05, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2017.