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The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a massive movement against police violence and anti-Black racism that saw thousands taking to the streets across the U.S.Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

When Carolyn Smith learned her daughter wanted to drive from northern Virginia to visit her in Georgia in early December, she tried to discourage her. How safe would it be for a Black woman to drive through the American South in the wake of an election? she asked.

She fears the election will be followed by outbreaks of violence by white people in the throes of racial nationalism, much like what she experienced growing up in Jim Crow Louisiana.

Adriane Lentz-Smith, Ms. Smith’s other daughter, said she wishes she could dismiss her mother’s concerns as melodramatic, but as a Black historian at Duke University, she doesn’t find them far-fetched.

While race has played a significant role in past elections, the country is so polarized this year that Dr. Lentz-Smith said it calls to mind the elections of 1964 and 1968, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, or even 1912, when Woodrow Wilson won over Black voters with a promise to bring them equal rights (but instead resegregated many federal agencies, bringing Jim Crow to Washington).

“The dissatisfaction and the gamble is something that we, 108 years later, recognize and understand,” she said.

To many, Tuesday’s presidential election has become a referendum on race. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Black Americans, who have had the highest death rate from the virus in the country. This summer, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a massive movement against police violence and anti-Black racism that saw thousands taking to the streets everywhere from Portland, to Miami, to Baltimore.

The difference in the ways race was addressed in the presidential debates could not be more stark: While Democratic nominee Joe Biden referenced the Black death rate from COVID-19 at the first debate in September, that same evening, President Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacists, instead calling on the group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

A September study based on multiple polls from the non-partisan Pew Research Center found that when it came to matters of race, the gulf between supporters of the Republican presidential nominee and the Democratic presidential nominee widened considerably from 2016 to 2020.

In 2016, 11 per cent of Mr. Trump’s supporters said it was a lot more difficult to be Black than white compared with 57 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s. However this year, while roughly the same number (11 per cent) of Mr. Trump’s supporters agreed with that statement when asked the same question, among Mr. Biden’s supporters, 74 per cent agreed with the statement.

The divide has also widened in the past four years between supporters of both parties' presidential nominees on perceptions of white privilege, immigration’s impact on society, and Islam.

“While overall views have shifted, the shift has come exclusively from within the Democratic coalition,” the report’s authors wrote. “The attitudes of Trump supporters today look very similar to attitudes of Trump supporters four years ago.”

The ways in which Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden speak to white voters on race issues is worth paying attention to, said LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, a Princeton University assistant professor of politics and author of Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics.

In his ads after the Democratic National Convention that have addressed police violence against Black people, Mr. Biden acknowledges systemic racism but tries to make a distinction between peaceful protest and what is characterized as rioting and looting, Dr. Stephens-Dougan said.

“I think that’s for those moderate whites who say, ‘Yes, a cop shouldn’t kneel on the man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds’ but are worried that we’re going to go too far trying to address these issues,” she said.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has turned race and crime into a wedge issue after Mr. Floyd’s death, explicitly characterizing largely peaceful protests as riots and deploying federal law enforcement to confront protesters.

Dr. Stephens-Dougan said Mr. Trump’s typically explicit language around race has become more coded during this campaign. When he speaks of suburban housewives, she said, he’s implicitly referring to white women. “[When he says] ‘low-income people are going to take over your suburbs,’ class is so tightly associated with race that we know who he’s talking about,” she said.

Get-out-the-vote organizers targeting Black voters have also zeroed-in on this summer’s protests in their efforts. As part of a campaign launched in September, the NAACP has highlighted Mr. Floyd’s death and police brutality more broadly in the past two months, while also putting a spotlight on the effects of COVID-19 in the Black population: the cases, the deaths and the economic fallout and the rage they should evoke.

Dr. Stephens-Dougan said research is mixed as to whether anger mobilizes people of colour to get to the polls in the way as it does their white counterparts.

“For people who the system has never worked for or has worked very imperfectly, it’s plausible they don’t see voting as the avenue to change,” she said.

Dr. Lentz-Smith recalled the naïveté of her students, regardless of race, in 2008, who looked at the election of Barack Obama as a sign they now lived in postracial America.

“And they were taught in the subsequent 12 years – certainly the last four years – that boy, are we ever not,” she said.

In her more hopeful moments, she’s optimistic the very clear signs of racial inequity that have emerged since then may energize young voters.

“I think that those people are angry because they want the country that they were told that they had and that they’ve come to believe in. And so maybe they’re insisting that we get it now,” she said.

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