On Race and Racism Data Matter


In the aftermath of the election there has been plenty of discussion, both among academics and in the media, of the role played by “identity” and especially race in the outcome.  Mark Lilla’s much and deservedly criticized New York Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Politics,” got things going.  Among the more perceptive responses to Lilla, and the most directly relevant to academia, was that by Christopher Newfield, which I posted to this blog under the title “Higher Education and ‘Identity Politics‘.”  But to date much of the discussion — and especially discussion of the role of racial identity and racism — has not been informed by much informative concrete data.

Now, however, come two fascinating pieces which attempt to analyze the role played by race and racism in both media and voting patterns.   The first of these, “Racism With No Racists:The President Trump Conundrum,” was posted on her widely read blog by Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.  Cottom was struck, as are many, by how rarely the media will explicitly call someone or some action racist.  The media, she notes, has “produced a culture that normalized using euphemisms for racism and racists.”  Hence, she postulates, “mainstream media was woefully unprepared to cover a professionally racist presidential platform like Donald Trump’s and why they continue to be ill-equipped for what promises to be an aggressively, blatant racist political platform.”

What I find most interesting is the heart of Cottom’s post, in which she painstakingly quantifies her concerns about the media’s treatment of racism via a data-driven analysis of articles in the New York Times. Here is one of several graphs from Cottom’s piece that charts the use of the words “racist” and “racism” in the Times across the paper’s history;

“This graph,” Cottom writes, “suggests that the New York Times has, as one might hope, become a lot more comfortable talking about racism and racists over time. It is also worth noting the steep increase after 2008, which is when the U.S. elected President Barack Obama who is black.”  However, further analysis reveals that at its peak “racism” appeared in just 1.5% of articles published in 2016 and “racist” in just 1.32%.  Cottom then performs similar tests for various euphemisms for racism, concluding that each of the euphemisms for racism “outnumber the number of articles that use ‘racism’,” the most popular euphemism being “racially motivated.”

The issue, Cottom concludes, is that “the definition of ‘racial’ — of or about race — isn’t at all what racism is. Racism is not about race. Everybody has race. And, that’s not how we’re using it. Racism is about racial hatred, animus rooted in racial superiority beliefs that often justify the unfair allocation of resources, both cultural and material.”

She concludes:

Racial, being related to race, is not what President-elect Donald Trump means when he says a Mexican judge cannot fairly adjudicate his legal case or Muslims are inherently violent or blacks are morally inferior.

He is describing animus rooted in beliefs of racial superiority.

If the media cannot call that racism, will they be able to cover President-elect Donald Trump?

And while they figure it out, how bad will the lives of racial people get while racism hides behind euphemisms?

Time will tell.

But will the New York Times?

The second data-driven piece is a revealing study of voting patterns by county in Wisconsin by David Roediger and Kathryn Robinson entitled “The Sundown Vote in Wisconsin: Race-ing the Trump Victory.”  Roediger is the Foundation Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas and the author of Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All. Robinson is a PhD student in American Studies at Kansas. They ask  “who were these hidden Trump voters that delivered in Wisconsin, one of the three Rust Belt victories paving Trump’s road to the White House?”  Their answer has a lot to do with “sundown towns” and counties.

Sundown towns were a widespread phenomenon across the country, but especially in the Midwest.  For most of the twentieth century these towns “remained whites-only, in part by disallowing even visits by African Americans after nightfall.”  The phenomenon has been carefully studied by historian James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism and an accompanying website.

Roediger and Robinson wonder what role Wisconsin’s “sundown towns” played in the election.  They answer their question by employing voting data from Wisconsin counties in which the county seat was such a town, voting records by municipality being difficult to obtain.  “The simple answer on Trump and sundown towns in Wisconsin,” they say, “is: ‘Clearly they elected him.’”

Sundown counties gave Trump almost 935,000 votes to Clinton’s just over 678,000. His margin in the sundown areas exceeded 256,000 votes. That Clinton won the fifteen non-sundown counties by almost 230,000 votes could not make up for Trump’s 58% to 42% margin in the sundown ones. Just short of two/thirds of all Trump voters in Wisconsin came from sundown counties. Only nine sundown counties chose Clinton with 49 for Trump.

Moreover, they continue,

these hard facts understate sundown support for Trump’s candidacy. Three relatively large counties that went for the Democratic candidate by a margin of about 18,000 votes are perhaps the most questionably sundown counties in the state. Two of the three are counties hosting significant state universities (Eau Claire and La Crosse Counties), and the third (Rock County) is a long-time, though now lapsed, place of auto production with considerable United Automobile Workers (UAW) union strength. Each has a significant nonwhite population, and Rock County is the lone example of a county with a sundown seat of government but also a Black population of more than 5%. If totals from these questionable sundown counties are removed, Trump’s margin in sundown counties verges on 60% to 40%.

However, simplistic conclusions about the role of race in these counties is challenged, Roediger and Robinson argue, “if we look more closely at the 2016 returns, and devastated if we take an historical approach.”

In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in all but eight of Wisconsin’s sundown counties. These virtually all-white counties delivered to the African American candidate a majority of nearly 143,000 votes. The fifteen very small sundown counties discussed above supported Obama in 2008 by 57.4% to 42.6%. The countervailing continuity lay in the metro Milwaukee suburbancounties, where the vote went to the conservative candidate in both 2008 and 2016, by overwhelming margins in both cases. The intervening 2012 election proved a halfway house, with the Milwaukee suburban counties solidly for Romney but Obama splitting the other sundown counties with the Republican ticket. By 2016, just under 400,000 votes had switched from the Democratic to the Republican candidate in sundown Wisconsin. Outside of the sundown counties the pro-Republican swing from 2008 to 2016 was just 17,000 votes.

What are we to make of this?  Roediger and Robinson conclude, “The sundown foundations of Trump’s victory in Wisconsin ought not to be minimized. At the very least, it is worth reminding ourselves of how little racist politics in the U.S. are based on lived contact and how much and tragically that they rest on talk radio, imagination, rumor, representation, and whitelore. . . .  The white supremacist past and present lived in sundown towns, and especially in sundown suburbs, continues to provide oxygen for reaction and to extinguish possibilities for transformation.”

Cottom’s piece may be accessed at https://tressiemc.com/digitalsociologies/racism-with-no-racists-the-president-trump-conundrum/

Roediger and Robinson’s article may be found at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/11/29/the-sundown-town-vote-in-wisconsin-race-ing-the-trump-victory/

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