Over the weekend, an argument broke out online about the legacy of Jim Crow, sparked by comments that Joe Biden made in South Carolina about voter-suppression tactics being deployed by Republicans. “[Last] year, 24 states introduced or enacted at least 70 bills to curtail the right the vote … mostly directed at people of color,” the former vice-president and 2020 presidential candidate said. “We’ve got Jim Crow sneaking back in.”
Matt Lewis, a Daily Beast reporter and CNN commentator, tweeted in response, “Jim Crow? Aren’t there enough legitimate problems [with] Trump that Joe shouldn’t have to engage in such irresponsible hyperbole?” Lewis added in a follow-up tweet: “This sort of crying wolf is part of the reason I think a lot of working-class white voters are tuning out Democratic politicians — and ignoring their (otherwise valid) criticisms of Trump.”
As no shortage of respondents were quick to point out to Lewis, laws and practices that impede voting rights proliferate across the United States. Intimidation measures used under Jim Crow to keep black people away from the ballot box are echoed today by frivolous voter-fraud prosecutions pursued by local officials, and the varying degrees to which civilians have been empowered to challenge others’ right to vote. A version of the poll tax — a Jim Crow–era imposition that endowed the franchise with financial burdens that most black people could not shoulder — passed recently in the GOP-controlled Florida legislature, requiring re-enfranchised people with felony convictions to settle court fines and fees before getting their rights back.
That these and other such measures affect black would-be voters disproportionately is either the intended goal or a convenient side effect for Republicans, who seem congenitally unable to win the black vote in a fair fight.
Still, Lewis’s suggestion that we are not witnessing a literal resurgence of Jim Crow is worth engaging, particularly in light of his follow-up claim that Democrats “crying wolf” is why white working-class voters reject them. The dynamic that he implies can be summarized thusly: Donald Trump is a racist, but rather than rebuke him because of his racism, many white working-class voters are driven into his fold because Democrats exaggerate how bad racism is.
It is an odd argument, and not only because white support for Republicans across class lines has historically been driven by GOP appeals to white bigotry, rather than despite them. It is especially odd because it assumes that Trump supporters would be motivated to fight racism — or at least not reject political figures who talk about it — if the stakes were presented to them in a measured and reasonable manner that accurately assessed the scope of the problem.
The reality is that the tone of such discussions has proven largely immaterial. The detonator is bringing up race at all. Writing for the right-leaning Niskanen Center, political scientist Matt Grossman points to a consistent theme in the literature about what motivated support for Trump in 2016. “Many people dislike group-based claims of structural disadvantage and the norms obligating their public recognition,” he writes. “Those voters saw Trump as their champion.”
To that end, evidence abounds in recent history that merely mentioning race or racism drives many white people, including Trump supporters, to more openly embrace racist platforms and attitudes. White support for welfare plummets when respondents are led to believe that the sociopolitical standing of nonwhites is increasing relative to their own, according to recent research. A 2017 study found that Trump supporters were more likely to oppose a housing-assistance policy when it was advertised using the face of a black man rather than a white man.
Broadening the scope, when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, cries for justice were largely trans-partisan. Then President Obama said that the slain 17-year-old could have been his son. Suddenly, a conservative smear campaign was underway to cast the teen as a thug who deserved what he got. Neither violent rioting nor peaceful protests have much endeared black people demanding equal rights to most white Americans. From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Colin Kaepernick, even the most inoffensive demonstrations have been met with majoritarian rebuke.
And that is to say nothing of the Trump supporters who are openly racist. Polling from Reuters–Ipsos in 2016 indicated that roughly 40 percent of Trump supporters thought black people were lazier than white people, while closer to half thought blacks were more violent and criminal. Between such flagrant bigots, the more pragmatically racist opponents of social services that they believe help black people more than them, and the white voters driven to embrace Trump simply because they dislike hearing about structural disadvantage, it seems unlikely that Democrats comparing modern conditions to Jim Crow is a major problem driving their support for the president.
It is of course difficult to attribute white working-class support for Trump to any single cause, in no small part because such voters are not a monolith. Even for the bigots among them, the president has assailed so many different groups that even voters who think “Jim Crow–esque” is a fair characterization of modern Republican policies might support Trump because they agree with his demonization of Mexican and Central American migrants, or his insistence that Muslims are a national security threat.
But to the extent that the very real, and often very violent, impact that racism has on black people can be described in a way that accurately conveys its toll, it remains unclear what a Democrat like Biden — who, incidentally, has his own checkered history of backing racist policy for self-serving reasons — could say that is both honest about the problem and prevents white people from supporting Trump in response. It is fair to argue, as Matt Lewis did, that comparing today’s circumstances to the totalizing horror of Jim Crow is an exaggeration. Less clear is whether, for the vast majority of Trump supporters, white working-class or otherwise, it would make a significant difference either way.