OpEd: Race, Class Confound Predictions for Voter Turnout in 2016

by Kristal High Taylor /  / Updated 

The recent assault of Rakeem Jones at a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina is, in some ways, equivalent to the outburst by Congressman Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie!” at President Obama while he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in September 2009.

In both cases, the White assailant delivered the Black man an unexpected blow to the face – whether literal or figurative – signaling it’s time for the latter to get and stay in his place.

These two events, standing as bookends to Obama’s presidency, when viewed together mark deep levels of declining civility in America, and highlight one of the ways race and class conspire to confound our political process.

It seems that every few days, there’s some event along the campaign trail that causes us to ponder the degree to which any of the current presidential contenders can and will actually represent the interests of Black Americans.

While the extreme racism and xenophobic rhetoric of this primary season rests principally with the Republican field - especially Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and their supporters - there have been moments when the Democratic contenders have given Black audiences pause as well.

Earlier this week, Senator Bernie Sanders was derided for inartfully equating “blackness” with ghettos and poverty when asked about his racial blind spots. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set Twitter on fire days before the South Carolina primary when #WhichHillary began trending because of what some characterize as disparate stances between on her views on racial justice and criminalizing Black people.

Beyond the angry outbursts and increasing physical violence being displayed at Trump rallies, the inertia of White angst is driving the working class and less educated voters to support ostensible “outsiders” in the polls.

Without President Obama at the top of the ticket, the question this year is whether either of the Democratic primary contenders will adequately galvanize the Black vote to stave off a Republican nominee ascending to the White House.

If one thing is certain, working-class Whites have found champions in Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders who’ve both been able to ignite new fire in the hearts of people who see their vision of the American Dream rapidly fading away.

RELATED: Man Charged with Assault After Punching Protester at Trump Event

Between depressed wages, an obstructionist Congress and what feels like a broken federal system rigged to favor the already well-off, and shifting racial and ethnic demographics pushing us toward a “majority-minority” nation, many working class and underprivileged Whites feel like they’re losing ground.

Beyond the angry outbursts and increasing physical violence being displayed at Trump rallies, the inertia of White angst is driving the working class and less educated voters to support ostensible “outsiders” in the polls.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigns in South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks before the Greater Charleston Business Alliance, which supports minority businesses and is affiliated with the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce on September 23, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina.Charles Ommanney / The Washington Post/Getty Images

For Black voters, the calculus may be a bit different. Clinton generally enjoys long odds over Sanders when it comes to securing the vote. Her early performance in the South finds her dominating Sanders among this voting bloc, but with his surprise win in Michigan, it’s not as clear that the Clinton magic carries the same weight elsewhere around the country. Historically, Black voters align with the candidate they feel most connected to, and that relationship confirms the belief that the candidate will represent their ideals.

In a year in which income inequality looms large, it remains to be seen whether class divisions within the Black community will influence voter turnout, or whether a favored relationship status will trump.

RELATED: Could Black Voters Be Breaking For Trump?

According to a recent study by Credit Suisse Research and The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, the top 10 percent of African Americans account for 67 percent of all wealth held by Black communities. Of the 42.2 million African Americans in the country today, roughly 27 percent live in poverty, and about 42 percent receive some form of public assistance be it food stamps, Medicaid, TANF, supplemental security, or Section 8 housing benefits.

Clinton’s appeal tends to rest with women, older, and more affluent voters, while Sanders gets his greatest boost from millennials, men, and the working class.

Sanders’ platform caters to those living at or below the poverty line, and to those members of the middle class who see opportunity at their fingertips yet too elusive to reach. Clinton, on the other hand offers a more universalist approach to prosperity, albeit a more progressive agenda today because of Sanders’ competition, that seeks to lift all tides without demonizing the wealthiest members of society.

Whichever candidate receives the lions share of the Black vote avoids the trap aptly articulated by award-winning journalist Mary C. Curtis: “America’s black relations are held close when they suit a purpose — economic, cultural or social – then often pushed away, demonized or ignored when that purpose has been served.”

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