Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Jul 21, 2020
US race politics and protests: An impact assessment on the 2020 elections

While George Floyd’s death sparked widespread protests and brought the issues of institutionalized racism in the US to the forefront, they’re fundamentally fueled by the perennially poor socio-economic conditions in which millions of African-Americans such as Floyd live. With racial discrimination becoming a key election issue, Joe Biden, whose party enjoys overwhelming African-American support needs to strike a fine balance, for he also needs the support of other racial, ethnic and ideological groups with other priorities. The present political affinity between the African-Americans and the Democratic party cannot be taken for granted, and is a consequence of several political events and reversals that started in the 1870s and continued till the 1960s. To understand the impact the protests may have on the 2020 election, one needs to look at the evolution of the political affiliations of African-Americans, vis-à-vis America’s two major political parties, and their current socio-economic standing.

After Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, the Republican party became the natural choice for African-Americans. Between 1865 and 1929, with strong African-American support, the Republican party dominated America’s national politics. In 1929, Herbert Hoover of the Republican party became the 31st president of the United States. Unlike other Republican Presidents, Hoover espoused sentiments opposed to African-American interests and even refused to be photographed with any person of colour. Despite Hoover’s racial disposition, African-Americans remained loyal to Lincoln’s party, and voted for Hoover. In the 1932 presidential elections, Democratic party nominee Franklin D Roosevelt defeated Hoover, and this was the last election in which a majority of African-Americans supported the Republican party.

Roosevelt campaigned on the promise of the New Deal – an economic relief, recovery and reconstruction program aimed at benefitting Americans most affected by the great depression, which included opposing groups such as white southerners and African-Americans. Roosevelt abolished racial discrimination in issuance of government contracts, and also formed a ‘Black Cabinet,’ a body of African-American policy advisors to device initiatives aimed at advancing their community. Under Roosevelt, several African-Americans held important political positions and government jobs in states ruled by the Democrats. As a consequence, Roosevelt swept back to power in the 1936 presidential elections, with 76% of African-Americans in the Northern states voting for him. Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s Vice President and successor, continued Roosevelt’s policies and ended racial segregation in the US military, which further increased support for the Democratic party among the African-American community. In the meantime, Republicans solicited the support of white southerners, a group opposed to the idea of racial equality.

At the beginning of Eisenhower’s presidency in 1953, African-Americans did not expect much from this Republican President. However, he played a significant role in ending racial segregation in schools across the US, and this secured him 40% of the African-Americans votes in his 1956 re-election. During Eisenhower’s presidency, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to national prominence, and developed a strong and a publicly known working relationship with Eisenhower’s Vice President Richard Nixon. However, their relationship took a decisive turn in October 1960, when Dr. King was arrested for breaking the segregation rule in Atlanta. Till then, Nixon’s opponent and Democratic party presidential nominee John F. Kennedy was focused on building a political coalition with the white southerners, and avoided any discussions on civil rights and racial equality. However, driven by political expedience, the Kennedy brothers worked to have Dr. King released from prison, which Dr. King publicly acknowledged and thanked them for; this led to an overwhelming number of Africa-Americans supporting Kennedy and bringing the community further closer to the Democratic party

President Lyndon Johnson, who was Kennedy’s Vice President, championed and passed the Civil Rights Act. Six months after the Act was passed, Johnson fought the 1964 general elections in which his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater opposed the Act and promised to repeal it. Johnson won the election in a landslide, winning 486 electoral colleges, and cemented the Democratic party’s position as the new natural choice of the African-American community. In the meantime, Nixon plotted his political re-entry by forming a coalition with the white southerners, and promising to stymie racial integration efforts. Nixon’s efforts paid-off and he won the 1968 and 1972 presidential election by taking every southern state with him, and this marked the total reversal in political alignment of the Africa-American and white communities in America, which continues till date.

Percentage of African-American Votes in US Presidential Elections

Source: National Election Poll, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, NYT, CBS News

Percentage of White Votes in US Presidential Elections

Source: National Election Poll, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, NYT, CBS News

In 2008 and 2012, Obama secured 95% and 93% of the African-American votes. Though Obama’s victory marked a turning point in America’s racial history, 46% of Americans believed that race relations worsened under his presidency, with only 29% believing otherwise. Though many African-Americans saw Obama as one of their own in the White House, Obama’s response in several instances of police shooting of African-Americans disappointed many in the community. It was during his Presidency that the Black Lives Matter movement originated. In his last speech as president, Obama himself admitted that his presidency did not usher in the post-racial period in America.

Trump’s political foray into the 2016 presidential race began with him stoking the birther controversy and he exploited America’s racial divisions before and during his Presidency. Though he did not directly target the African-American community, by relentlessly targeting the Hiics, Trump made race the centre piece of his campaign. However, his white supremacists posturing left very little room for people of other races, particularly African-Americans and he seemed to welcome it. Trump and his party’s race laden attacks on Obama was also seen as an affront on the entire community. Weighing in on the violence across America following George Floyd’s death, he called the protestors thugs and implied that looting justifies shooting. He supported undue use of force in dealing with protestors and planned to hold an election rally in Tulsa, on 19 June, which was seen as a deliberate act of symbolic irreverence.

Trump’s political foray into the 2016 presidential race began with him stoking the birther controversy and he exploited America’s racial divisions before and during his Presidency

While a sense of institutional discrimination can be fanned by such divisive politics, police brutality, and administrative apathy, its root cause lies in economics and factors influenced by it. During much of Obama’s presidency, which started during a recession, the average American household income fell from US$ 58,811 to US$ 55,900. While this indicates a fall in income across all racial groups, the pinch is severe for the African-American community which has perennially been at the bottom of America’s economic pyramid.

Real Median Income by Race  

Source: US Census Bureau

Before it began to equal to Obama’s pre-presidency levels, average income of African-American households, which was less than 50% of an Asian household, fell by -2.5% over a four-year period. In 2019, the average African-Americans household income was 52% less than an Asian household, 41% less that a white household, and 19% less that a Hiic household.

Average Household Income of the African-American Community

Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics

Average Household Income by Race - 2019

Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics

Nothing seems to suggest that this economic divide between the African-Americans and the rest would diminish anytime soon, which is best seen in the measure of house-hold wealth. Between 1989 and 2016, the average household wealth of White Americans increased by 114%, while that of the African-American community increased only by 25% (annual growth of 0.85%).

Average Household Wealth

Source: Center for American Progress

Unemployment among African-Americans has also been the high, and it reached the peak levels of 16% and 15.8%, in 2011 and 2012 respectively. That they peaked under an African-Americans President added to the sense of discrimination they were subjected to, a feeling that was ripe for instigation by events such as Floyd’s death.

Unemployment Rate by Race

Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics, CNBC

In November, Trump touted the historically low 5.5% unemployment rate among the African-Americans, though it was still 2% higher than the national average. In May 2020, while unemployment in the US fell from 14.9% to 12.4%, which Trump touted as a remarkable turnaround in a Covid-19 hit world, unemployment among the African-American community rose to 16.8%. Viewed from any economic vantage point – income, wealth and unemployment – the African-American community is in a vulnerable position and well behind the rest of America. Hence a true and lasting solution to addressing the concerns of the African-Americans community starts with improving their economic condition. And not by political symbolisms.

Biden owes his nomination to the African-American community, which may force him to pick a woman of colour as his running mate. However, such a choice could dampen the enthusiasm among the Hiic community, the largest minority group who account for 38 million votes, and a record 30% of the votes in the two biggest states – California and Texas. Past electoral trends suggest that whenever the support for the Republican party nominee is high among the white community, the Democratic party nominee has to win a significant share of the votes among both the African-American and Hiic community.

Biden owes his nomination to the African-American community, which may force him to pick a woman of colour as his running mate. However, such a choice could dampen the enthusiasm among the Hiic community

Percentage of Hiic Votes in US Presidential Elections

Source: National Election Poll, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, NYT, CBS News

Unlike Trump, Biden needs a diverse support base, which often has conflicting interests on contentious issues such as racial violence. Hence a campaign centered on racial tensions could have diminishing returns for Biden. He would want to focus on issues such as economy, unemployment, public-health and immigration. But given Trump’s track record of dictating the political narrative and reducing it to simplistic binaries, Biden will need to work extra hard to convince his diverse voter base and the American people that he’s the one best suited to heal America’s racial wounds and lead it out of its long economic winter.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Prasanna Karthik

Prasanna Karthik

Prasanna Karthik is a strategy consultant and public policy professional based out of New Delhi. He is a Fulbright as well as Clinton Global Initiative ...

Read More +