Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies