While many of us bask in the glimmer of hope offered with the defeat of Roy Moore by Doug Jones for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat, we might ask ourselves if a Doug Jones-type candidate could have won if the individual were Black or female, White or Black?
Despite the Black vote that clearly swung the election in favor of Jones, the likely answer to this question is sadly “no.” The answer isn’t simply based on mean-spirited bigoted Trumpites but is fueled by a long history of the lasting power of White racism and patriarchy.
First, let’s consider the possibility of a Black candidate winning in Alabama. A White majority has never admitted that Blacks and other people of color are legitimate members of the U.S. worthy of inclusion in the nation’s social fabric. When freed slaves could have been included within the nation, the White majority – North and South – could not imagine such a multicultural citizenry. Northern politicians at that time who supported emancipation and voting rights for people of African descent imagined that “free labor” would replace slave labor.
The mistaken assumption was that freedmen would now be able to compete equally in the labor market as free labor and that the so-called invisible hand of the market would lead to liberty and freedom for former slaves. Freedmen and their families had other ideas: Just give us some land and let us take care of ourselves and give us the same freedoms that Whites are granted.
Except for a very few exceptions during Reconstruction after the Civil War, the kind of freedom envisioned by freed slaves and Northern “free labor” abolitionists never happened. In fact, the South simply created “colorblind” laws that primarily discriminated against Blacks in nearly all aspects of their lives along with “contracts” that placed many back on plantations or worse well into the 20th century. Meanwhile, in the North and West, Whites constructed real estate, educational, and employment practices that discriminated against equal protection under the law.
As historian Eric Foner put it in his research on the Reconstruction era,
By the end of the Civil War the White governing class’s “inability…to conceive of blacks as anything but plantation labor doomed real economic reform.”
Some may say that was 150 years ago and times have changed. Well, that general statement may be true. Nevertheless, in October of this year research by the Harvard Business Review announced,
Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended legalized job discrimination and increased the racial diversity of workplaces, practices of racial discrimination clearly remains. And by 1980 the “progress for black Americans in the workplace came to an abrupt stop.”
But what about Republican candidate Roy Moore in 2017 who could evoke a neo-Confederate trope that slaves at least had happy families? This is the same kind of mythology circulated by plantation owners who were shocked when “their” Blacks revolted against them during and after the Civil War. Our current right-wingers mouth the same rhetoric as their Reconstruction ancestors: Keep government small and most certainly don’t tax White people to support Black education and other social services.
The convenient reasoning is that now that Blacks are “free” to enter contracts, they need to fund their own education and social services and shouldn’t expect government support. This is the kind of ideological orientation that drives Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s thinking: keep education racially separate with privatized public funds with a socialization that advances an intolerant religious conservatism.
Same kind of racist reasoning was used by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1988 when he stated about conquered Native Americans,
For the record, a U.S. Senate report in 1989 made clear that
“Indians have lost 97% of their land and their population has been decimated by military assaults and fatal disease. These attacks were also designed to rob Indians of their very identity, pushing them to relinquish their language, arts and religion.”
Humored? Now that Indigenous people were “free,” like African Americans, they are blamed for the contemporary inequities that are the result of historical oppression and continuing discrimination.
And this takes us back to the Alabama vote. Jones received just 30% of the White vote, which was twice what Obama received. (Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election indicated that among all White voters nationally, only 39% voted for President Obama.) Whites composed 2/3 of the voters, and of that group, 68% voted for Moore. In contrast, Blacks made up 29% of all voters, and 96% of that group voted for Jones. This statistic alone tells us a lot as to why voter suppression is major goal in White Republican controlled state legislatures and by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority which invalidated oversight of historically discriminatory voting districts in 2013. Meanwhile, 57% of White college graduates voted for Moore along with 80% of voters self-identified as “White born-again Christians.”
And for bigots who have dominated the U.S. political landscape since its inception, the first in line for positions of governing and employment and other opportunities are White men. This patriarchal orientation is quite well and alive as evidenced by the #MeToo movement with the naming of institutional sexism that permeates our culture.
Just like many of us thought women across the board would reject a Trump candidacy for his comment about women – “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything” – we were wrong. In Alabama the sexual predator Moore could evoke God and the majority of female voters could deny the evidence in front of them: 52% of White college educated women voted for Moore while a whopping 73% of White female non-college graduates voted for their sexist candidate. In totality, 63% of White women voters supported Moore. A system of patriarchy doesn’t just reside with men.
If Moore hadn’t been such an overt sexist and racist and a more moderate Republican had run against Jones, it’s very possible that Jones would have lost. This is based on exit polls where a small but significant number of Republicans either voted for Jones or a write-in candidate because they were put off by Moore. Now try to imagine a Black candidate or a White or Black female running successfully against the Republicans for a U.S. Senate seat. I just can’t. In this poisoned political environment, the legacy of the Civil War and male supremacy remains way too entrenched in neo-Confederate rhetoric.
The silver lining in this election – besides the short-term gain of the election of Jones – was the political mobilization of Black voters and young voters. For all voters in age range of 18-29 and 30-44, at least 60% voted for Jones. As the population ages, 45-64 and 65+, a group that composes 64% of all voters, the majority voted for Moore and his slimy politics. (For more on the Alabama data provided in this commentary, see the Washington Post’s exit poll results.)
The challenge in the coming decades will be the extent to which a multicultural coalition that crosses socio-economic classes and gender can come together to forge a more inclusive United States.