Lessons from the US elections: Long, grinding racial conflict lies ahead for a fractured nation

Election 2020 has brought the United States to the cusp of dangerous moment of decision in its political life: there are many roads forward from here, and all but a few lead to perdition

Praveen Swami November 05, 2020 13:44:53 IST
Lessons from the US elections: Long, grinding racial conflict lies ahead for a fractured nation

Representational image. Flickr @Fibonacci Blue

From his perch in the Emmet House saloon, Carney didn’t like the look of the world outside: “D—d Niggers” were, depending on which witnesses we believe, escorting two White women down the streets, or calling out insults to them. The quick-tempered Irish bar-owner - five times arrested on charges ranging from assault to shooting a man - began a brawl. The Black men didn’t back off. “God damn you, Carney”, one said, “I can whip you or any Irishman or any White man in Milwaukee”. Then, knives were drawn; the publican’s stomach was slashed open.

Late the next night, a mob of Irish migrant workers dragged George Marshall Clark out of prison — even though it was far from clear that he killed Carney — and hanged him from a pile driver standing on Michigan Street. For hours, Clark’s body hung over the waterfront, drawing crowds of curious gawkers until someone protested the macabre street ornament, saying it was “not Christian-like”.

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them”, James Baldwin wrote: The shadow of the man lynched in 1861, and a few thousand people living not from Emmet House saloon once stood, have shaped the rise and fall of President Donald Trump. The story is far from spent, though, and as grim conflict which drives it sharpens, America will be transformed, perhaps beyond recognition.

Lessons from the US elections Long grinding racial conflict lies ahead for a fractured nation

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In 2016, Trump rode to the White House on the back of his unexpected win in the long-standing Democratic stronghold of Wisconsin — its 10 Electoral College votes secured for him by 47.22 percent of voters, to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s 46.45 percent. This time, Joe Biden’s recapture of Wisconsin — and almost certainly the White House — has been built on the support of just 20,500 people, reversing the wafer-thin margin of 2016 almost exactly. North-east Wisconsin supported Trump more strongly, now, than in 2016; Milwaukee and Dane counties rejected him even more so.

The story is about something more complicated than it might appear, though: De-industrialising, rust-belt Wisconsin is also on the frontlines of the conflict over racial identity.

Less than twenty-five kilometres from the street-corner where Clark was lynched, 61 percent of voters in the county of Waukesha supported Trump in 2016, to Clinton’s 33 percent.  In the 2017 state elections, Republican Scott Walker won 70 percent of Waukesha. Though exact figures aren’t available yet, Trump’s support seems to have held in Waukesha this time, too.

At a 10-minute drive away, in Milwaukee county — the urban core of the state — Trump won just 28.6 percent of the vote in 2016, and former governor Scott Walker 36 percent in 2017.

From census data, we know why these two countries behave in such different ways.  Milwaukee county, home to the city, is racially diverse — 40 percent Black, 17.3 percent Hispanic, 3.5 percent Asian, 0.8 percent Native American. Waukesha County is over 88 percent White.

There’s no great imagination to see what underpins White voter behaviour: In the middle of this century, the United States will transition from being a White-majority country, to one where Whites are the largest single ethnic group. For the 18-29 cohort — the younger labour force and key segments of the voting age populations, the tipping point will come sooner, experts estimate, perhaps even as soon as 2027.

Even though public discourse allows little space for honest conversation on these issue, cute television advertisements with mixed-race couples or little Brown babies are telling many White Americans all they need to know: Demographic change is set to destroy system of racial privilege on which their lives were built.

For all practical purposes, the data shows, America is an apartheid society. In 2009, when Barack Obama became president, the nascent White nationalist constituency understood that this order was at threat of being dismantled. Even though Obama turned out to be less-than-radical in his policies, the ruthless demographic and political processes transforming America could no longer be ignored.

In a thoughtful paper published earlier this year, scholars Roger Smith and Desmond King described Trump as ushering in a new politics of “White protectionism”. Trump, they noted, moved towards “policies designed directly to protect whites, including unconstrained policing, weakened civil rights enforcement, and franchise and immigration restrictions”. Instead of merely vetoing affirmative action programmes, Trump “stresses active measures to protect those deemed white against perceived inequities”.

Earlier generations of post-Civil Rights politicians had also invoked the new racial anxieties that emerged from the 1960s to win support: Richard Nixon cast change as an existential threat to American values; Ronald Reagan peddled stereotypes of the welfare queens; George HW Bush, notoriously, invoked the threat of the Black criminal.

Trump himself built his public career on these issues. In 1989, following the brutal rape of New York resident Trisha Meil, he demanded the death sentence for five teenagers — four Black and one Hispanic — convicted for the crime. In 2002, an imprisoned serial rapist confessed to the jogger's rape, a confession confirmed by subsequent DNA tests. Trump, though, refused to apologise for inflaming public opinion, or making false allegations.

From the inchoate constituencies concerned about race — an industrial working-class disenfranchised by globalisation; religious radicals dismayed by changing social norms and values; neo-Nazis; cultural nationalists — Trump was able to build an effective, and durable, electoral alliance.

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That alliance remains in place despite Trump’s defeat, the figures show. The question is: What shape will it now take?

In 1854, seven years before Clark was lynched, another mob had attacked Milwaukee’s prison: This one freed Joseph Glover, an escaped slave incarcerated by professional slave-catchers, and helped him escaped into British-ruled Canada, where slavery was illegal. “The eagle no longer protects him under the shadow of her wings”, former slave Joseph Barquet said at a rally in Glover’s support. “Let him go and throw himself under the tender clutches of the British lion”.

Following Clark’s killing, The Milwaukee News blamed the lynching on “abolition fanatics” and their appeal to a “higher law” to free Glover prison.  The Black and White races, it went on, could not live together “except in the relation of master and slave.”

Wisconsin — among the crucibles in which America’s anti-slavery movement was forged — has a deeply-held self-image as an integrationist powerhouse. There’s reason for Wisconsin to be proud of its anti-slavery radicalism — but also not-inconsiderable space between the self-image and the reality.

Dan Schneider has shown Wisconsin is among the worst places to be a Black American, measured by indices like income, incarceration rates and health. “The overall poverty rate is less than eight percent; but for black residents, it’s about 36 percent” Schneider records. “For Whites, the median household income is over $60,000; the median income for Black households is less than half that”.

Even though the Civil Rights movement won significant gains, it’s important to understand the United States remains significantly divided by race. Although the country has become more diverse, neighbourhoods and cities are still segregated. Every third Black family has zero or negative wealth; one in three Black children lives in poverty.  In April this year, one in 2.5 Black adults were either unemployed or temporarily furloughed; a sixth had lost their job or income in the three months past.

Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee and Michael Esposito have shown State violence against Black Americans is part of the warp and weft of America’s life: One in 1,000 Black men and boys, the scholars demonstrated, will die at the hands of the police, 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white males.

Indeed, the data shows, dying at the hands of law enforcement is a leading cause of death among young Black men: Every 11th Black American, incredibly, is either incarcerated or on some form of parole.

This inequity cannot survive - and, as demographics force change on American politics, efforts to dismantle it will increase. The armed militia that rose under Trump knows this, and is preparing for the battle they are certain lies ahead.

Like so many of his predecessors, Biden’s instincts will lead him to seek to put band-aid on these wounds; to look for compromises that hold out the prospect of co-existence. There’s little chance, though, he will succeed: The political centre-ground on which Biden built his career long ago dissolved into a morass. Perhaps more important, the White nationalist movement has been radicalised; its leadership knows that neither demography nor time are on its side.

Election 2020 has brought the United States to the cusp of dangerous moment of decision in its political life: there are many roads forward from here, and all but a few lead to perdition.

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