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.

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