The Frustratingly Simple Reason Why Black People Voted For Trump

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

Last month, I wrote an article about the Left’s failure to understand Trump’s popularity. While it was generally well-received, some people couldn’t get behind the central premise, namely that Trump’s supporters couldn’t all be dismissed as a bunch of racist, amoral bigots.

It’s not difficult to see where they’re coming from. Trump counts people like David Duke, the Proud Boys, and even the Taliban among his supporters. Trump himself was sued for discriminating against African-American tenants, described Mexicans as criminals and rapists, and was a leading voice in the racist “Birther” movement, which essentially questioned whether a black man should be considered an American at all.

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But my argument was never that Trump isn’t racist, or that none of his supporters are racist. My point was claiming that roughly 74 million people who voted for him because they were all racist (for context, only 19 countries have populations that exceed 70 million people) is a gross oversimplification of the reasons people vote the way they do.

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This becomes even clearer when you remember that Trump’s popularity amongst people of colour grew in 2020. In 2016, Trump’s share of the black vote was an already surprisingly high 8%, but four years later, that number rose to 12%. Latino voters made a similar jump, from 28% in 2016 to 32% in 2020. To me, this seemed to be all the evidence you could need that though all racists are likely Trump supporters, not all Trump supporters are racists.

My readers still disagreed. “How could anybody who wasn’t racist support a man who ordered the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by,’ during a televised debate?” they asked. How could anybody who wasn’t racist bear to listen to Trump’s ignorant, divisive rhetoric? How could anybody who wasn’t racist willingly vote for a racist?

These questions have been rattling around in my head ever since, and it was only whilst reading this article by John McWhorter that the answer I’d been struggling to put into words finally crystallised.

McWhorter tells the story of W. E. B. Du Bois, a civil rights activist and writer, born just three years after slavery was abolished, who nonetheless encouraged black people to vote for Woodrow Wilson in 1912. He did this whilst full aware that Wilson “did not admire” black people (a pretty colossal understatement considering that one of Wilson’s first acts as president was to reintroduce segregation between black and white government workers). Du Bois believed that Wilson’s policies would be better for black people than Roosevelt’s, so he put aside his feelings about the man himself. Black people have been making this trade-off ever since they won the right to vote.

Black people voted for Reagan even as his response to the crack epidemic that was crippling their communities amounted to the phrase, “Just Say No.” They voted for Bill Clinton as his 1994 crime bill disproportionately sent black men to prison for minor drug offences. And they voted for Biden, a man who even as he courted the black vote by selecting a woman of colour as his Vice President, claimed that any black person who voted for his opponent “ain’t black”. And in 2007 described Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.

Black and Latino voters pulled the lever for Trump because they thought (however naively) that he would improve their lives. The question isn’t “how can anybody vote for somebody who disdains them”, but rather “where do we draw the line that makes a candidate unelectable?” In other words, at what point is a candidate’s character so deplorable, that their flaws outweigh any material gains they might promise?

I’m not about to claim that I know where that line should be drawn, but I will point out that for much of American history, drawing it at “not racist” has been a luxury that people of colour simply couldn’t afford. At a time where many were fighting to be recognised as human beings, they didn’t have the privilege of worrying about whether they liked (or were liked by) their president.

In general, Trump did better with voters who were concerned about the economy, crime, and public safety. Simply put, these people prioritised their livelihoods and safety from crime above all else, including the character of the person who would lead them. Do I agree with their choice? No. Do I even understand it? Also no. But what I do understand, is that such a choice is possible without the explanation of racism. I understand how day-to-day concerns can drive people to override moral discomfort. I understand that if you’re desperate enough, you’ll accept hope in whatever form it comes.

Maybe you think this attitude is selfish or short-sighted or naive, and frankly, I agree with you. But agreement isn’t the point. These are the choices that human beings, regardless of the colour of their skin, will make when they don’t believe that they have better options. People of colour have a long and painful history of having to choose between two unappetising options after all. There’s a certain pragmatism that develops when you have to choose between smiling at a racist customer and losing your job, or between complying with an illegal search and risking getting shot, or between an openly racist president and a candidate whose racism is more subtle.

Thankfully, we no longer live in the time of Woodrow Wilson. And as time moves forward, the dissonance between voting based on our best interests, and voting based on our values, continues to shrink. But there’s no denying that that dissonance still exists. As long as people like Trump are willing to make empty promises that appeal to people of colour, some number of them will continue to vote for him. If we hope to prevent them from doing the same thing the next time a toxic populist captures their imagination, we can’t assume that racism will be their top priority at the ballot box.

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