Last year I wrote about the role of politics in racial violence historically. In light of a violent insurrection at the nation’s capital, it is time to highlight (again) the role that race plays in the violence that the nation witnessed on January 6, 2021. The open display of Confederate flags and cries of “saving the nation” by means of disenfranchising Black voters in key swing states is part of a longer and more nuanced story of the role of race in American politics and the role of racial violence in the foundation and maintenance of hegemonic political control of American political institutions. Ultimately, I believe that our democracy is at grave risk, and if we fail to heed the lessons of history our nation will cease to adhere to its democratic principles.
Political theories of racial violence hinge on the reaction of Whites to the real or potential political participation by Blacks. In the Power-Threat hypothesis, when two groups coexist with unequal access to political power and resources, the dominant group engages in a wide variety of methods, including violence, to secure privileged access to those resources. The number and type of resources distributed through our political system are extensive, but we should also note that control of the political system determines who benefits from these programs. As such, political control determines not only whether the government will act in a way to benefit citizens, but also which ones will benefit and, conversely, who is excluded. According to the theory, as the political threat of Blacks rises, so does the specter of racial violence (Soule 1992; Corzine, Creech, and Corzine 1983). This competition for resources presumes that African American access to resources would inherently come at the detriment of Whites.
While the belief that benefits to Blacks coming at the expense of Whites is not true, it does govern our political discourse. Race also plays an important role in the ways that we think of public support for public goods provision—it is not the case that some states are stingy in the provision of public goods, it is that states are stingy in the provision of public goods that cannot exclude Black Americans. A full accounting of the history of social programs shows that racial exclusion was a key to building the Democratic coalition of the New Deal programming. Expansionary programs like interstate construction subsidized White wealth creation and led to hyper-segregation in American cities while at the same time fueling infrastructure investment that had large positive externalities on overall economic output. These gains, however, were not evenly distributed, and the role of race in infrastructure and urban development is a large part of the story. When LBJ began the War on Poverty in the 1960s and insisted that the distribution of grants be done on a race-neutral basis, Southern states rejected the assistance even though the poverty rates in their states were relatively high and they stood to gain more than other states from the federal funding.
The trajectory of economic progress for Black Americans from the 1960s onward is connected in large part to the implementation of anti-poverty policies, labor market reforms, and anti-discrimination legislation. Even so, the discourse surrounding public programs has, in many instances, centered around perceived pathologies and behaviors ostensibly unique to Black communities—including “moral hazard” concerns with respect to work effort and the provision of benefits (Darity et al., 2013; Mead, 2007; Murray, 1984; Russell, 2003; Stigler, 1965; Wilson, 2012). The racialized political economy is an attempt to create a narrative where “our” (read White) taxes are used to support an undeserving “them” (read Black). This has material impact on Black well being and the internal policies of social welfare programs. Decades after these expansions, research shows that Black welfare clients face harsher sanctioning, including additional administrative barriers to receiving services (e.g., Fording et al., 2007; Moynihan et al., 2014; Schram et al., 2009; Soss et al., 2011). Blacks are also more likely to reside in states that provide less cash assistance, as a proportion of their welfare programs (Hardy et al. 2019; Parolin 2019). More recent research has shown that revisions to policies which by design historically excluded Blacks played a large role in improving earnings, health, and overall socioeconomic well-being of Black Americans (e.g. Derenoncourt and Montialoux 2019; Dube 2019; Hoynes et al., 2016; Wherry & Meyer 2016).
The overt racialization of social policies began shortly after the voting rights of Blacks were protected at the federal level in 1965. Despite the promise of enfranchisement, White resentment has been a constant feature of conservative White political organization since Nixon’s Southern Strategy. While historical racial violence has been shown to depress Black political participation today (Williams 2020), new strategies have advanced in the last decade as federal oversight of voter protection has advanced. Recently, however, Black political activist have organized Black voters extensively despite the punitive policies of Secretaries of State who seek to set roadblocks to voting. The 2020 and 2021 results in Georgia have shown one route around these restrictive criteria.
Now that the old policies through the traditional channels of voter suppression and intimidation are not successful, conservative Whites have resorted to discrediting the democratic process more generally. This, however, is simply an even older trope. During Reconstruction, Black votes were labeled “illegal” and “illegitimate.” The recent baseless claims of voter fraud are a naked rehash of the Reconstruction process. As then, when the attempts through the courts proved unsuccessful, it was time to directly attack the system. The political violence which resulted in the Enforcement Acts only delayed the eventual process where Blacks were driven from the polls.
Although this insurrection was not successful, I am not optimistic about the future of our democracy. Immediate violence is reactive, and may not achieve its desired objective. History shows that racialized violence is followed by policy, strategy and, ultimately, success. For example, the process of voter intimidation begun in Alabama in 1876 culminated in an openly White supremacists state constitution a few decades later. What began as appeals to national unity following the Civil War gave way to a system of Jim Crow and Black voter suppression.
White supremacy is surprisingly patient. The recent objections to the electoral college vote lay out a playbook to disenfranchise Black voters no matter what the state policies for voting are, nor how committed Black voters are to participating in American democracy. With a sustained electoral college vote objection, state delegations, which by gerrymandering are majority Republican in several states that voted Democratic, would choose the candidate to receive the electoral college votes. This would set the stage for several states to develop a norm of regularly tossing out the votes of the state via the electoral college. This process could be challenged, but the proportion of the judiciary is disproportionately conservative, giving greater likelihood to success. As in the past, it is a direct attack by White conservatives to disregard their typical appeals to federalism in the name of Black voter suppression.
While recent media reports seek to highlight the maintenance of American democracy, historians should be leading the call for caution. There are few protections in place to prevent a state delegation or legislative body from cooperating with congressional leaders to disenfranchise Black voters in a future presidential election. And to be clear, the baseless claims of the 2020 election were about Black voters, and they resulted in a majority of Republican congressional representatives voting to object to the electoral college ballots of two states. As such, we should view the violent insurrection of January 6 as the potential start, not the culmination, of unwinding American democracy.