On Tuesday, November 24th, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students hosted “Group Attitudes, Identities, & U.S. Politics,” an online panel discussion and Q&A session. The event, which was a part of the FOCUS Speaker Series, featured three experts in American political science and the history of racial appeals in politics: Professors LaFleur Stephens-Dougan of Princeton, Ashley Jardina of Duke University, and Davin Phoenix of the University of California, Irvine.
The three panelists are all recently published authors, and their books each had enormous significance for the topic of conversation. Stephens-Dougan is the author of Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics (2020). Jardina published her book White Identity Politics in 2019, and Phoenix’s book, The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics came out in 2019 as well.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election scholars and activists are only beginning to understand the new political landscape that has formed around race in the United States – or whether a new one has formed at all. After an introduction by Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Mellisa Thompson, each panelist spoke briefly about their work and how it related to the topic at hand.
Professor Stephens-Dougan began with a quote from political scientist Harold Lasswell, who defined politics as “who gets what, when and how.” She went on to speak about Race to the Bottom, in which she tracked and analyzed decades of racialized appeals – some coded, some less so – in American politics. They often play into racist stereotypes of African Americans, and are usually meant to win over or assuage the fears of white voters. According to her research, these appeals are a fixture of US politics, and are not limited to politicians of any party or race. Politicians need to maintain a “balancing act” of not appearing racist while also making a show of protecting the racial status quo. She ended with a question that bridged the gap between her research and that of Professor Phoenix, asking him about how that balancing act can affect Black politicians as well as white ones.
He acknowledged and expanded upon the dilemma faced by Black politicians – how to stand up for racial equity while not appearing “angry” or somehow beholden to Black constituents. His research in The Anger Gap found that Black and Latinx Americans express significantly less anger about political issues than their white counterparts, in part because of the fear of stigmatization and legal pushback – that they assumed “the risk of being labeled as angry while Black.” He talked about the lengths to which Black politicians go to avoid the stereotype, and referenced the famous sketch about President Barack Obama’s “anger translator” as a caricature of this impossible situation.
Phoenix, in turn, posed a question to Jardina about her work. As the United States continues to struggle with racial strife and politicians seem to be choosing whether to embrace racialized appeals or to move past them, he asked whether the Democratic Party would lose voters with a white “identity” as it increasingly courts voters of color. In White Identity Politics, Jardina argued that white Americans’ views on race are driven as much by a defense of a white identity as by antipathy towards other racial and ethnic groups. Jardina referenced this research in her answer, saying that appeals to the white identity could further complicate political persuasion, especially in the Democratic Party. Many white Americans, according to Jardina, are not as hostile to big government as is often thought. They are in favor of programs like Social Security and Medicare, but only as long as these programs seem to benefit members of their identity (i.e. white Americans) as well. She suggested that they don’t want less government, they want government that they think will benefit people like them; they can be alienated by what they see as efforts to break the power of white Americans for the benefit of Americans of color. For the Democratic Party, she argued, this could present a crisis of conflicting values as white voters are torn between their support for elements of the party’s platform and the need to defend the privilege and power of white people.
The second half of the event was a Q&A, moderated by Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students and Director of Student Leadership and Engagement Ian Deas. Questions from the audience poured in, beginning with one about Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and its argument that social status, not just race, is the cause of a “hierarchy of prejudice” in American society. On this, the panelists agreed that it is virtually impossible to untangle issues of race from those of class, but maintained that socioeconomic status and caste could not always explain societal ills on their own. Professor Phoenix noted that Black families with college degrees often have even less wealth than white families in which the highest educational attainment is a high school diploma. Even when controlling for factors like wealth and education, inequality persists because of race.
Just weeks after the 2020 election, and with legal challenges and recounts continuing, many of the questions swirled around how people of color have voted and will vote. One audience member asked the panelists why Senator Bernie Sanders had failed to mobilize voters of color, while another referenced 2020 exit polls to ask why Black men seemed to be voting for Donald Trump in higher numbers than before. On Sanders’ campaign, Professor Stephens-Dougan said that his focus on economic issues almost exclusively while more or less ignoring issues of race seemed “almost fantastical” to Black voters. She noted, however, that Black voters are not a monolith and Sanders’ support was strong among Black voters under 30. In response to the question about support for Trump among Black men, the panelists first noted that exit polls are notoriously inaccurate, and that exit polls in 2020 would by nature miss people who had voted by mail. But Stephens-Dougan talked about a feeling on the part of Black voters that the Democratic Party has not done enough to earn their support. Phoenix also pointed to other forms of prejudice – that some male voters of color were swayed by a “patriarchal appeal” or by the idea that Trump’s racialized appeals were directed at a different group. Stephens-Dougan agreed that Black voters are by no means immune from anti-Black rhetoric and prejudice, but reiterated that exit polls should be taken with a grain of salt.
The next question, directed towards Professor Phoenix, asked if he saw Stacey Abrams’ success in mobilizing Black voters in Georgia as a form of anger – closing the “anger gap” between Black and white Americans. Phoenix responded that Abrams had indeed tapped into the anger of the electorate, but emphasized that he saw it as a positive step. Abrams, he argued, proved that Black voters’ anger over legitimate and unresolved grievances could be a powerful political force, and that she had shown that it was possible to win without skirting the issue of Black anger like it was the “third rail of politics.”
The panelists seemed to be both optimistic and uncertain about the future of race in American politics. Professor Stephens-Dougan hailed the election of Kamala Harris as a milestone for women and people of color, but cautioned that Harris, too, was representative of the racial balancing act – how President-elect Biden’s hand was in some ways forced to pick a Black running mate, and he intentionally chose Harris in part for her record as a moderate and her background in law enforcement.
The professors agreed that the problem of racism in politics would not be solved by continuing to appeal to white moderates and conservatives. The only path forward, they said, lies in mobilizing people of color to vote in each and every election – to form a voting base powerful enough to enable politicians to win without making coded racial appeals. They acknowledged the progress already made on this front, but the message was clear: start getting ready for 2022.
The recording of “Group Attitudes, Identities, & U.S. Politics” can be found here.
The FOCUS Speaker Series is a program designed to offer students and the wider university community the chance to participate in meaningful discussions with some of the foremost anti-racist writers, activists, and thinkers in the world. New FOCUS events can be found on the ODUS website or on our social media, so please continue to check back!