WashU Expert: Trump victory shows racial justice movement needs better storytellers

Exit polls confirm white racial resentment deeply ingrained in American society

If Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president accomplishes nothing else, it has been remarkably successful in fostering public discourse about how we as a people think and talk about race in America.

“The U.S. is, again, at an historical juncture where we’re seeing tremendous contestation about race,” said Clarissa Hayward, who studies democratic politics and racial identity at Washington University in St. Louis. “The exit polls confirmed stark racial divisions in voter support for Trump, and that’s one of the important things people have been posting and talking about since the election.”


Hayward, an associate professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, is the author of “How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces” (Cambridge University Press, 2013), an award-winning book that explores how people produce and reproduce racial identities.

  • ‘White identity’ politics: “Trump’s political success has legitimized and given voice to a white identity politics that is structured around resentment based on the perceived decline of white racial privilege,” she said.
  • Struggles for racial justice: “Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, has re-activated, re-energized and put on the political agenda once again claims about racial injustice and political arguments for redressing systemic racial inequality.” For Hayward, the 2016 election was, in part, a battle between these competing narratives. In this battle, Trump held advantages over Hillary Clinton on several fronts. Trump, by most accounts, was the better showman and provocateur, an entertainer capable of pushing his story into national headlines on a daily basis.
  • Competing identity narratives?: But Trump also held the advantage, said Hayward, in that he tapped into white racial resentment with his promise to “make America great again.” Clinton, by contrast, struggled with a message of inclusion that failed to mobilize enough voters. CNN’s 2016 election exit poll results, which documented an 88 percent share of the black vote for Clinton and a 56 percent share of the white vote for Trump, serve as a reminder that racially charged narratives still have a powerful hold on the American mindset. Still, Clinton’s slightly stronger showing (43 percent) among younger white voters (ages 18-29) may suggest that this mindset is changing.
  • Resentment vs. racial justice: Hayward’s research suggests that racial stories which help to win big cultural battles — the ones that emerge politically triumphant — tend to gain momentum from such successes. The challenge for the left, she said, is to construct a racial narrative that can win out over Trump’s. “Trump has apparently done a good job of telling racial stories that build coalitions around white racial resentment,” Hayward said. “Now the left must learn to tell competing narratives that build coalitions around racial justice.”

Read more from our experts on Election 2016.

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