The battle for the racial future of America

By Dr Clayton Chin
Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Melbourne

During an election campaign as chaotic as this one, where a sitting President has contracted the very virus he is accused of mismanaging, it is easy to forget the discussions that have dominated recent months and, in fact, the entire presidency of Donald Trump.

While there are several contenders — from political corruption to the future of the American Supreme Court — it’s important to remember that this election, and the message it will send, is about race and the future of racial inequality in the United States.

From Trump’s initial claims that President Obama wasn’t an American citizen and his keynote issue of building a wall on the Mexican border to keep out people he labelled as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists”, to using an executive order to ban entry to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries and his lack of concern with COVID-19 which has disproportionately affected communities of colour – race is an issue that has always defined the Trump presidency and has come to a boil with the global pandemic and a new wave of gruesome police violence.

Politics isn’t just governing and policy. Elections aren’t just about choosing governments. Both are symbolic activities.

Donald Trump removes a face mask as he prepares to give an address at the White House
Racism has dominated Donald Trump’s presidency and is the key issue heading into the November election. Pic: Getty Images

Winning an election validates a political program and a set of policies. Whatever the problems of the American electoral system, electoral outcomes legitimise the perspectives, goals and policies of some and not others.

One of the key consequences of democratic government is political community. When citizens can vote, when their views matter and governments seek their support, a community of citizens is created.

Elections signal important things about that political community. The way a political party speaks and addresses citizens, who they prioritise and emphasise, says a lot to a broad democratic populace about whose concerns are included, whose are important and whose aren’t.

This symbolic dimension is more important in some areas than others. In the context of the United States, race and the history of racism is a key dividing line between progressives and conservatives in terms of how they tell the story of the country.

A man walks past a mural that reads: Trump = Racism. Vote him out!
Elections are also symbolic activities, signalling to the community what is important and who matters. Pic: Getty Images

While there is a widening gulf between the current Democratic and Republican Parties generally, their rhetoric, views and goals around racial division in the United States have never been so far apart.

Donald Trump’s record on race places him at the centre of national controversy.

Even prior to his time as a presidential candidate he courted racial controversy. However, it’s in 2020 in the lead-up to the election that we have seen the apotheosis of his racial politics.

While claiming policy successes on African American livelihoods, he has used racial unrest and protests following the police killings of multiple African-Americans to appeal to his base of white voters.

While often excusing or explicitly appealing to white nationalist and white supremacist groups, Trump called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate” and has consistently downplayed police violence, instead describing the mostly peaceful protestors as “anarchists” and “Marxists”.

In September 2020, Trump ordered the Office of Management and Budget to cease “anti-racism” training programs in federal offices, calling it “anti-American propaganda.”

He developed this into an executive order that included any company or individual contracted by the federal government.

A woman holds a placard reading Black Lives Matter
President Trump has labelled the Black Lives Matter movement as a symbol of hate. Pic: Getty Images

The order bans teaching such ideas as “white privilege”, which identifies the structural advantages white people have and “systemic racism”, which illustrates discriminatory laws, conventions and institutions in contemporary society.

Framing himself as the “law and order” President, protecting America from would-be usurpers, Trump has sent a clear message that during his presidency America is white and racism is accepted.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden doesn’t have an uncontroversial past in relation to race relations in the US.

He spearheaded a 1994 crime bill, which saw a rise in mass incarcerations, a deeply politicised issue for African-Americans.

Similarly, there has been questioning, particularly during the Democratic Primaries from his now running-mate Kamala Harris, over his opposition to federally-mandated busing in the mid-1970s.

More recently, the gaff-prone presidential candidate has drawn ire for saying “you ain’t Black” to African-American voters comparing him and Trump, and for suggesting the African-American community is more homogenous than Latino communities.

However, Biden also has strong support from African-American voters and strong perceived ties to the black community.

Joe Biden speaks in front of a lectern alongside Kamala Harris (left)
Joe Biden has strong support from African-American communities those his record isn’t without controversy. Pic: Getty Images

He was a vocal supporter of civil rights and, of course, he served under America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

This raises the rather symbolic nature of Biden’s association with race. Most of his progressive credentials come from his association with Obama, his choice of Harris as his running-mate, and his rhetoric and promised policies around racial justice.

For example, Biden has released the “Biden Plan for strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” which prioritises preventative rather than punitive approaches to crime, and eliminating racial disparities across politics, society and the economy.

Biden has acknowledged the presence of systemic racism in US and supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

In fact, he has claimed that the racism in Trump’s blaming of “both sides” for the violence between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia inspired his decision to run for president.

In this way, he has made addressing racial division and racial injustice one of the centrepieces of his electoral campaign. Biden and Harris’ vision of America, the one they promise to build, is one in which all Americans are included.

The stakes between these two images for the American political community are high.

A man walks in front of a mural urging people to vote with George Floyd in mind.
The rhetoric around racial division between the Democratic and Republican Parties has never been so far apart. Pic: Getty Images

A victory for Trump in November will embolden white supremacists and send a firm message to minorities, particularly African-Americans, that they remain secondary in American society.

A victory for Biden will legitimise and require a progressive and widespread series of reforms that could begin transforming racial inequality – sending a clear message that the American political community doesn’t prioritise people on race.

In this election, the consequent messages on who “Americans” are, and what “America” is couldn’t be more profound.

This article was co-published with Pursuit. Banner image: Getty Images


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