Racism is the implicit yet central stake in the upcoming American presidential elections. This is what Donald Trump wanted, and his political base is inevitably following his lead. Let us recall that his 2016 election was accurately interpreted in France-Amérique as “the revenge of the white male” against racial “minorities” and the feminist movement. Since then, he has stayed true to his course and never tried to be the president of all Americans. The Democrats have reflexively adopted the opposing side, as symbolized in the choice of Kamala Harris as vice president. Predictably, Trump’s reaction against the Californian senator has matched his pro-white, anti-feminist strategy. He has made allusions to her indeterminate race (she is Black, with Jamaican and Indian heritage) and her supposedly hysterical character, and has implied that she is not a true American. In truth, she is just as American as Trump, born of immigrant parents, unless we decide that only whites are true Americans.
Besides Kamala Harris, it was significant that the first person to speak in support of Joe Biden at the (online) Democratic Convention was Michelle Obama, who is Black, female, and proud. Other than Ben Carson, the first Black, ultra-conservative, evangelical politician to join the Trump administration as secretary of housing and urban development, all those who surround Trump are ultra-white. What’s more, they let it be known on the internet, if not at the podium, that this election represents the last chance for white people. If immigration is not halted, they say, whites will be a minority in ten years.
This politics of race is nothing new in the United States. At the time of the founding, the framers of the Constitution considered how to count Blacks. This is when slave owners and abolitionists agreed that Black slaves would count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning votes in the electoral college, although they did not themselves have the right to vote. They only obtained this right in 1870 following a civil war and the Fifteenth Amendment, a right that would not become effective until a century later. And yet, in Southern states, many Republican governors are still engineering multiple, practical obstacles to voting by the poor, who tend to be Black and Latino.
Of course, in their public speeches the candidates will abstain from evoking race too openly, but race will constitute the subtext of proposed policies. In order to shake off accusations of racism, the Republicans are claiming to fight against the Democrats’ identity politics as symbolized by affirmative action. But will they really dupe anyone? Debates over universal health care, access to education for all, unemployment insurance, affordable housing, and protection against police violence coincide, almost always, with skin color. The most disadvantaged are the darkest-skinned. Those who accuse Biden and his supporters of being Marxist are using a laughable pretext to hide what is really at stake in their votes.
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1935 in Black Reconstruction in America, a poor white person, compared with a poor Black or Latino, for example, benefits at the outset from an objective advantage that confers on him or her better access to a mortgage and less threat of police violence or incarceration. It should also be recalled that minorities of color are more frequently victims of Covid-19, not because of the color of their skin, but because their jobs more often expose them to the pandemic and because they have less access to health care. Donald Trump will probably lose (in number of votes if not in the electoral college) because of his incapacity to lead during the pandemic, a failing caused by his perception of the virus as an illness that affected minorities.
One might object that the racial turn in politics did not prevent the election of Barack Obama. This is true, but he was not an African American. As the son of a Kenyan economist and a white anthropologist, he was not a descendent of slaves and did not play the race card. It remains that it was indeed Obama’s election that focused racial hatred and mobilized whites around Trump in order to prevent any such future aberration. In the eyes of whites, a Black person is more or less Black. Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are only a little Black, since they do not force whites to confront the historical burden of slavery. This is because, behind the opposition between whites and Blacks – and Blacks, I would say, are not as anti-white as whites are anti-Black – is the memory of slavery that will not go away.
Americans have never confronted this past in the way Germans and South Africans, for example, confronted the Holocaust and apartheid. Worse still, American cinema (beginning with Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind), literature, and monuments still celebrate a Southern society where “everyone had their place,” masters and slaves. Some statues of Southern generals have recently been toppled by white and Black demonstrators, but 1,700 of them remain, without counting the cities, universities, and military bases that still carry the names of Southern president Jefferson Davis and Southern general Robert E. Lee. Trump evidently let it be known that there was no question of renaming them.
The coming election will therefore be the most racially focused of any in the history of the United States since Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. It will not lead to an openly declared civil war, but we can expect a latent one. Whites who define themselves first of all as whites will not politely accept Trump’s defeat, while minorities and antiracist whites will not tolerate Trump’s reelection. In either case, the “transition” from the election in November to the president’s inauguration next January will be a time of troubles and probably of violence, in addition to the economic recession and the pandemic. The United States, even with Biden, will struggle to heal its society. As for the question of recovering moral and economic leadership at a global level – well, that time has passed.
Editorial published in the October 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.