The Washington Post
This is what election protests are really about
An uncomfortable question lurks beneath the anxiety about our nation becoming majorityminority. It is rarely asked out loud, and never in mixed company. The bluntness of the inquiry might feed existing divisions rather than lead to better race relations. But it must be asked and answered to satisfaction: Is the American republic for White people only?
The question will strike the ear harshly. It can’t be helped. For the essence of it — how comfortable are White Americans in a democracy where people of color increasingly hold political power? — is the most important question in the nation today.
Numerous studies have shown the idea of a majority-minority nation can fuel political polarization, activate White anxieties and resentments and suggest that a fundamental shift in American culture is imminent. Politically, this is exacerbated by the flawed “demographics is destiny” thesis, which incorrectly presumes that growing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities will lead to a permanent Democratic majority. Yet, conspiracies such as birtherism and the “great replacement theory” draw energy from these misconceptions.
In a recent poll, 87 percent of Republicans disagreed with the statement that a majority non-white population would strengthen American customs and values. It is a small step from such beliefs and fears to antidemocratic actions. Gerrymandering, dark money and so-called election integrity laws hope to protect the status quo against the perceived threat from people of color.
But what if the most pressing concern for the far right is less about who votes and more about who wins? The two are related, of course. But when the thinning majority suddenly find themselves governed by racial minorities long stereotyped as less intelligent, culturally inferior, prone to criminality and unsuited for leadership, resistance of some kind — rooted in long-cultivated fears — is guaranteed.
The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is worth looking at through this lens. Arguably, right-wing extremists did not attempt to overturn the presidential election because they wanted to permanently disenfranchise voters of color. Rather, they stormed the seat of Congress because they did not approve of who had been winning.
For the third time in four presidential elections, a Black Democrat was on the winning ticket. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the number of racial and ethnic minorities in Congress has nearly doubled, from 73 to 137 today. The Supreme Court is more diverse than it has ever been. Black mayors are leading the largest cities in the United States, as well as in red states such as Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana. The partisan nature of this phenomenon is clear: of the 271 Republican members of Congress, only 27 are people of color. The Democratic Party has ushered in a new era of racial diversity in the nation’s most powerful public institutions — and folks are mad about it.
In the past, a steep partisan rise in elected racial and ethnic minorities produced fierce backlash. A similar occurrence during Reconstruction produced a fever of lynching and racial discrimination in voting at the end of the 19th century. The reactions on the right today to elected government diversity feel like a dangerous, tragic sort of echo.
In 1898, the Wilmington insurrection produced the only successful violent coup in U.S. history. In this North Carolina city, a multiracial coalition of Black Republicans and White populists gained political and economic power. White supremacist Democratic elites waged a racist campaign in response, declaring the “unfitness of the Negro to govern” and advocating violence to end the “evils of Negro rule.”
On Nov. 10 of that year, an armed gang of White vigilantes killed dozens of Black people, ransacked their neighborhoods, burned the office of the local Black newspaper and forced the mayor and other city officials to resign at gunpoint. The mob marched prominent members of the multiracial coalition out of town and installed a new mayor and city council, which soon passed measures to keep Black elected officials out of government.
The culture war waged by today’s right has at least some of its roots in an unwillingness to be governed by different groups — a sensibility incompatible with liberal democracy. Fights over education curriculums, demonization of journalists, accusations of treasonous policies, veiled threats of violence and the use of “woke” in a way that recalls epithets such as “race traitor” and “scalawag” all speak to a fear that people of color are supplanting White Americans.
Attempts to use the courts to throw out election results, to compel state officials to change vote totals, to enact the independent state legislature theory to rig election outcomes and to challenge the legitimacy of democratic institutions all work to erase undesirable election outcomes — not to influence voters. Excusing the violence and sedition of the Jan. 6 horde, as well as repeated cases of armed militias swarming state houses, suggests the lengths to which some will go to change who leads our government.
This is subtly, but significantly, different from voter suppression. Angst and anger over particular groups’ increased participation in democracy is giving way to a despair associated with being governed by those groups.
A swath of the right has put its cards on the table. Its comments about immigrants, majority Black cities and Black and Hispanic Democratic officials — coupled with conspiracy theories and disinformation — make plain the fears it harbors about living in a nation where people of color genuinely participate in power.
But no matter how much talk there is of a “national divorce,” the American experiment only succeeds when our large diverse nation figures out how to strengthen an egalitarian and participatory democracy. It only fulfills its promise when the republic resembles the people without losing credibility or legitimacy. We are only exceptional if the color of our democracy is not seen as an impediment to the content of the nation’s character.