The numbers cannot be argued with. Black men and women, despite Trump’s bigotry, shifted toward Trump. Latinos did as well. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 79 percent of the vote in Texas’s Starr County, an overwhelmingly Latino area that borders Mexico. In 2020, Trump captured 47 percent of the vote, nearly winning it outright. After barely winning North Carolina’s Robeson County, home to the Lumbee tribe, Trump won 59 percent of the vote in 2020, easily breezing past Biden … And most notably, Trump significantly improved his margins in Latino Miami-Dade County, enough to win him Florida. Trump managed, despite a collapsing economy and an out of control COVID-19 pandemic, to grow his share of the Black and Latino vote.—Ross Barkin
In the Midwest, Trump received the votes of one in three black men and, as Musa al-Gharbi has pointed out, “when a black woman was on a major party ticket for the first time in US history, the margin between Democrats and Republicans among black women shifted 9 percentage points … towards Trump.” Trump’s overall support from African Americans rose 4 percentage points between 2016 and 2020. Perhaps just as surprisingly, Trump’s support among white men declined by 8 percentage points: in 2016 he won white men by 31 percentage points and in 2020 by 23. Biden gained ground with both non-college-educated and college-educated white men, reducing Trump’s support among the former from 48% to 42% and among the latter from 14% to 3%.
What conclusions might we draw from such findings? Barkin notes that many voters, including blacks and Latinos, agree with Trump’s immigration policies; conservatives agree with his Supreme Court choices and others buy his faux-populist persona. We might add that many Latinos in Starr county have good jobs with the US Border Patrol and that many of those who work in the oilfields believe that a Biden presidency will threaten their livelihoods. Al-Gharbi sees these numbers as part of a longer trend. Support for Democratic candidates among black and Hispanic voters declined in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
There is a further conclusion we might draw: it is time to give up our obsession with social identities. We clearly need to give up on essentialized versions wherein all blacks or Latinos think and vote alike. But we should also recognize that not only are such identities social constructions, they are not always helpful social constructions.
Take a Hispanic or Latino identity, a construction of the 1970s alliance between activist groups and the Nixon administration. For the 2020 census, “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin … includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish cultures.” As examples it lists Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Colombians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Spaniards, Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Venezuelans “etc.”
Clearly, there is little reason to expect a Puerto Rican Manhattanite to hold the same political views as a Mexican American in south Texas. Nevertheless, political scientist Juan Carlos Huerta notes that, “The Latino population … overall still voted for Biden. The one big racial ethnic group that didn’t vote for Biden and voted for Trump is white voters … How come white people are so Republican?” Huerta, alongside authors like Robin DiAngelo on the one hand and white supremacists on the other, demands that those of European descent (excluding Spaniards) occupy a white ethnic category, which in effect allows them only the choice of weaponizing their whiteness or facing up to its fragility. Still, the vagueness of the “etc.” at the end of that census definition of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” recalls the difficulties faced by the Supreme Court in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923. Under the laws in operation at that time, to become a naturalized citizen a person had to be white. The Court made various unsuccessful attempts to define what they meant by a “free, white person,” before resorting to the statement that it was whatever the founders “must have had affirmatively in mind” by that phrase.
Etc. and what was affirmatively in mind are equally bad foundations on which to build an understanding of the beliefs, hopes and interests of diverse Americans. We would do better to concentrate on the circumstances and issues those diverse Americans confront, the difficulties they face and how different policy agendas affect them, as well as on ways of overcoming poverty for all Americans—such as raising the federal minimum wage—whatever their race, gender or ethnicity. Because we too often attribute individuals’ interests to their identities, we are left scrambling for explanations when, as in the case of south Texas Latinos, identities and interests fail to cohere. Not surprisingly, when we find those explanations, they often refer to the circumstances that people with various ascribed identities share—for instance, working in the oilfields. Why not begin with these life conditions, rather than with social identities? A breakdown of voting behavior according to jobs and professions, for example, would allow us a better understanding of Americans’ various concerns than a breakdown according to overly broad ascribed identities that cannot account for location or socioeconomic status. This is also true of black American identity. Why suppose that an African American rap star has beliefs or interests in common with an African American district attorney? They may both face systemic racism, yet they will face it in importantly different ways, which will also differ from the ways in which racism affects working class or rural African Americans. Systemic racism is as lazy a term as etc. or affirmatively in mind. We can surely be more concrete and probative than that.
Even if we are stuck with our social identities, there is a better way of relating to them. We possess many different identities: African Americans, mothers, sports fans, Prius drivers and so on. The intelligibility and relevance of each of these identities depends on the context. If I am at a wedding and someone asks who I am, they presumably want to know my relation to the couple getting married. One of their college friends would be an appropriate answer, whereas the response a Democrat or a Prius driver would be incoherent or rude. The acerbic punch of the quip driving while black depends upon a similar mismatch between context and identity. In the context of driving, one’s identity is that of a good or bad driver, driver with an expired license or the like. To stop someone because of her identity as an African American is racial profiling precisely because heritage is no more relevant to driving capabilities than, say, prowess as a knitter. Similarly, when we ask a survey participant how she feels about police violence, that she is a rural white person will give us precious little information about the reasons for her answer. All surveys ask for demographic information in order to ascertain how well the answers they receive reflect the relevant population. But what is the relevant population? Too often we decide in advance that race, gender and so on are apposite even when the data indicate that some other commonality, such as having had bad encounters with the police, might be more revealing.
Our racial, ethnic, gender and similar identities can be sources of great personal meaning and connect us to our families and communities. One might be justly proud of one’s heritage as an African American or delight in one’s accomplishments as a woman. Yet these identities do not have universal salience. Who we are depends on the circumstances in which the question comes up and the answers will vary with those circumstances. It should be not be remarkable that a black woman voted for Trump or that a white man without a college degree voted for Biden: instead, we should investigate the circumstances, worries and aspirations that lead people to vote as they do. We should group people not by ascribed identities but by similarities in life conditions, and leave the definition of their identities up to their friends and families.