Election shows ‘racially hostile politics’ still have power, panelists say


Pitt political, historical and societal experts analyzed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election and what it shows about the state of the country at a panel discussion on Nov. 19.

Hosted by the Center of Race and Social problems and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, “What Just Happened? Race and Soul Searching after Election 2020” reflected on racial justice, anti-Black racism and how they influenced the outcome of the 2020 election.

Panelists included Chris Bonneau, a political science professor and president of the University Senate; Sheila Vélez Martínez, the director of clinical programs and the Immigration Law Clinic in the School of Law; Tiffany Gary-Webb, associate director of the Center for Health Equity and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Graduate School for Public Health; and Yolanda Covington-Ward, the department chair of the Department of Africana Studies.

James P. Huguley, the interim director of the Center on Race and Social Problems, and Ron Idoko, the diversity and multicultural program manager for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, moderated the hour-long discussion.

Huguley said the results of the election, in which Americans elected Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States, have major historical and societal implications.

“This election was sort of billed as ‘trying to reclaim the soul of America,’ which is an interesting way to frame it. And it also has interesting implications in connection to American history,” Huguley said. “People were looking at this election as a referendum on race in the United States, for people to take a stand against racism.”

Despite the overall outcome, he said, “The results were troubling in that they may have cemented the fact that racially hostile politics are not a major deterrent to electoral success.”

While President Donald Trump’s administration has used divisive racialized rhetoric throughout his four years in office, historically, race has been a major factor in electoral politics and political affiliation, Huguley said.

He said that the Civil Rights Movement helped people of color make societal gains, but a fear of blackness and people of color were used to appeal to white working-class voters in the ‘70s and ‘80s — particularly, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

Around 1972, race beat out class as the strongest predictor of political affiliation, Huguley added.

Martínez described 2020 as “the year of transparency” because of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disproportionately affected people of color, and the Black Lives Matter movement has been “laying bare the white supremacist nature of America.”

“America is a fundamentally white supremacist country,” Martínez said. “And we have yet to come to a place where there is widely an acceptance and an understanding of the lives of people of color as equally valuable.”

Martínez added that the election also has shown that the country constantly tried to advance issues of equality and systemic justice “by capitalizing on interest convergence, and how the interests of white Americans align with the interests of non-white Americans and how it is in the interests of white Americans because it benefits them.”

“And I think that part of the conversation that we need to have, and I think that this election prompts us to have, is how do we move from interest convergence to power convergence?” Martínez said. “Because there is a resistance … in the sharing of power.”

Covington-Ward agreed with Martínez, adding that this can be seen through the Trump administration challenging the validity of ballots in predominantly Black cities like Philadelphia and Detroit.

She then referred to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre as a historical example of how tactics that are used to invalidate black voters can have serious, and sometimes, fatal consequences.

During this incident In Wilmington, N.C., Covington-Ward said, around 2,000 armed white men forcibly removed elected black and white officials from office, killed black citizens, burned black businesses, took over the government, and installed their own city council and their own mayor.

“The reason I’m bringing it up is because this possibility of racial violence is always simmering underneath the surface in this country,” Covington-Ward said. “And I think that Black people always have to be aware that things can possibly reach that point.”

Later in the discussion, an attendee asked how people who supported Biden and Trump can come together, especially when 70 million Trump voters didn’t see a problem with his controversial rhetoric and policies that harm people of color.

Covington-Ward said that when reaching out to people who are willing to talk and think about coming together, there have to be some “non-negotiables.”

“There also have to be some ways in which we’re explicitly saying these are the things that we will not negotiate on, these are the things that we want to make sure you recognize my humanity is not negotiable,” Covington-Ward said. “I think that there has to be a stand made about things like that — recognizing the value of someone's life and the equal value of that life.”

To view the rest of the town hall, visit the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s YouTube channel.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905. 


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