Peniel Joseph: Trump's victory isn't the fault of black voters
Since 2012, voting rights for African Americans have been under attack
Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his own.
Black voters should not be blamed for Hillary Clinton’s stunning election night loss of the presidency. The roots of Donald Trump’s shocking, long-shot, and divisively improbable rise to the presidency can be traced back to election night four years ago when black voter percentage, for the first time in American history, surpassed whites. Black voters led the multiracial groups of voters that re-elected Barack Obama and seemed poised to do so in future presidential election cycles.
But a strange thing happened on the way to a rendezvous with victory. The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision did more than just effectively gut law enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. More profoundly, it neutralized black voter participation in key electoral battleground states, including North Carolina and Florida – states that provided president-elect Trump’s margins of victory.
The 2016 race represented more than a test of Hillary Clinton’s ability to maintain, perhaps even grow, the Obama Coalition. As the first presidential election since 1964 to be held absent the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, it was also a test of American democracy. The results, despite heroic efforts by grassroots political organizing such as the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina and federal efforts by the Justice Department to protect voting rights, were predictable: a decline in black voters from the glorious highs of 2012.
Worse, in the run-up to election day, media narratives presented this predictable decline of black turnout in early voting as a failure of civic action by the African American community instead of a perfectly-executed voter suppression plan hatched by Republican statehouses in the aftermath of the Shelby decision. Observers incorrectly characterized the upswing of Latino early voters as a polarizing contrast between two parts of the Obama Coalition, praising Latinos for comprehending Trump’s threat to American democracy and chastising blacks for somehow not getting the message.
This narrative is in some ways unsurprising: black Americans have historically been demonized for wanting to vote, denigrated for using the vote, and disrespected for not voting enough.
During the 19th century and earlier, enslaved African Americans were denied the vote and punished, even killed for openly expressing dreams of black citizenship. Black voting rights for men protected by the 15th amendment were then thwarted during an orchestrated campaign of racial violence, ensuring that most blacks could not freely exercise voting rights until after 1965.
Black voting power grew in the post-civil rights era but profound obstacles remained, including numerous Republican-led efforts to diffuse, deny, and denigrate black voting power through gerrymandering of congressional districts, the enactment of voter ID laws, and the closing of polling places in predominantly black and brown communities.
Barack Obama’s watershed presidency witnessed a high point in black voter participation, yet this moment of maximum opportunity precipitated an enormous backlash as evidenced by candidate Trump’s blunt talk of voter fraud taking place in “inner cities” across America.
Blaming black voters for Clinton’s loss ignores the structural constraints placed on that vote while denying black voters’ individual agency. The black community is not monolithic, something attested to by Donald Trump receiving an extraordinary 8% of African American votes. Small pluralities of black voters proved immune to Hillary Clinton’s electoral pleas, casting their votes for third party candidates or staying home to watch as Rome burned.
Last night’s election also illustrates that black Americans vote with their heads and hearts. Barack and Michelle Obama’s time in the White House captured the national zeitgeist but appealed to black Americans in a transcendent manner that would be hard for any conventional Democratic politicians to replicate.
Views on Election 2016
Hillary Clinton, despite deploying a raft of star-studded surrogates including the Obamas, LeBron James, Beyonce, and her husband, failed to convince large enough numbers of black voters that she offered the same kind of transformational politics that had catapulted Barack Obama twice into the presidency.
The institutional racism that diminished voter protections for poor black and brown citizens along with black voter ambivalence, especially by millennials to Clinton’s candidacy, created a perfect storm of electoral failure. But we should note that without the participation of voters of color, Clinton’s loss would have been a landslide.
Blaming blacks for Clinton’s defeat is not only wrong, but it also feeds the same appetite for racial animus and division that have led us to this dispiriting moment. CNN analyst Van Jones described where we are as a “whitelash” by Americans paralyzingly afraid of demographic, cultural, and economic changes engulfing “their” country.
British voters responded in similarly dramatic fashion earlier this year, triggering the ongoing Brexit crisis. Large and diverse majorities of white American men and women elevated Trump’s candidacy and elected him president. Less than one in ten African Americans supported the president-elect. Black voters, historically rebuked and scorned, turned out once again to support a democratic vision both profoundly hopeful and expansively inclusive. They should be praised for their heroic efforts in the face of unvarnished hate, not held responsible for Clinton’s defeat.