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How Racial Identity and Polarization Could Influence the Election

Duke faculty discuss protests, racism and politics during media briefing

Part of the The Briefing: Election 2020 and Its Aftermath Series
How Racial Identity and Polarization Could Influence the Election
Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith, Ashley Jardina and Gunther Peck

The recent protests over police killings of Black men, and the reaction to those protests by some white Americans, underscores a massively polarized electorate heading into the November election.

But to what extent is the nation truly divided, and which voting blocks might play key roles?

Three Duke scholars discussed these topics and more Wednesday during a virtual media briefing.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:


Ashley Jardina, political scientist

“When we talk about racism or we think about what the term ‘racism’ means, we usually conceive of it as a sense of antipathy or hostility or outward prejudice many Americans have towards people of color in the United States and, of course, towards Black Americans in particular.”

“There are a number of white Americans who don’t necessarily have this sense of racial hostility but nevertheless feel their group is somehow losing out. It’s losing its privileges and statuses. That’s where we see these conversations about white grievance politics.”

“This is still a set of attitudes and beliefs that help maintain a system of racial inequality, that help perpetuate racism.”

“You now have two sets of white voters, two distinct sets of white voters, who are arriving at a lot of their attitudes about immigration, about support for Trump, about the protest movement, from very different perspectives. But both of these perspectives are working in the service of enforcing racial inequality.”

“There’s an entire set of white voters who politicians can tap into strategically without necessarily using dog whistle or implicit racist language … but with more subtle language talking about the changing diversity of the country, for example. That taps into a different set of white voters.”



Adriane Lentz-Smith, historian

“We tend to talk about polarization as though it’s something that just happened organically as opposed to something that has been fostered, nurtured and intensified for political purposes.”

“One of the striking developments to me that happened this summer is not simply the intensity and pain that we hear in the various protests about COVID, about police violence … but the intensity of the response to delegitimize and invalidate those protests. As a historian, what I find striking is how quickly we return to a playbook from 1968 that was, in that moment, all about the Republican Party and the extremes beyond that. Taking the language of Jim Crow, or taking the practices of Jim Crow, and putting them in the language of law and order.”

“On the one hand, we have a huge number of people, multiethnic, multiracial, on the streets saying the anti-Democratic practices of this country have been bad for our health and wellbeing. And then we have an administration in power that has decided that rather than listen and respond and reform, they would rather attack, downplay and invalidate the protest.”

Gunther Peck, historian

“One of the things that’s hard to get a handle on in this moment is the relationship between explicit, avowed white supremacists and what might be described as a passive cohort of white citizens and voters who share some of those grievances but don’t want to be quite so violent or so explicit about it.”

“This moment has witnessed an entire new generation speaking and organizing and discovering their voice, who are young and multiracial. They are changing the conversation and the way in which politics is even organized.”



Gunther Peck

“People who protest are more likely to vote and engage politically. What that impact is going to look like this fall is really important because young people are traditionally least likely to participate. The fact that young people are leading this protest could have a transformative impact on the election in the fall.”



Ashley Jardina

“Young, white Americans are far less likely to possess this sense of racial solidarity. They’re far more likely to be sympathetic and supportive of racially progressive causes. Younger Americans are more educated than older generations. There’s not just an age gap, there’s an education gap when it comes to support for racial protest and racial equality.”

“White Americans who didn’t go to college are far less likely to support the protest movement.”



Ashley Jardina

“White Americans historically have had a very low tolerance for protest, particularly protests around racial justice. Even coming out of the civil rights movement when you had a considerable shift in white racial attitudes … a lot of that sympathy waned moving into the 1970s.”

“The thing that is very different today from when we look at some of the political strategies Nixon used … white Americans are far more polarized … along matters of race. You have this huge partisan gap between white Democrats and white Republicans. White Democrats are far more supportive of the protests.”

“We’re talking about a lot of white Americans who are already, for example, likely to vote for Joe Biden. So the question becomes the extent to which white Americans who do care about the protests are going to turn out to vote relative to the white Republicans … who don’t think the protests are appropriate, who don’t see a lot of racial inequality in the United States.”

“A lot of white Americans without a college degree in swing states have been registering to vote. That introduces a lot of unknowns moving into the election in November.”



Adriane Lentz-Smith

“How is it that if school is not in session, children go hungry? There is something profoundly wrong there that we haven’t talked enough about prior to the spring shutdown. Similarly, we talk about how overtaxed hospitals were. The people who weren’t going to hospitals because they couldn’t afford it. The way in which the economic shutdown put so many people in danger of being thrown out of their homes.”

“All of these things speak to the ways the United States is not caring for the people who live within it.”



Gunther Peck

“The instability in our politics is among young people. There are young people on both sides that are being polarized. But young people have historically been discounted. If they were to show up, they’re a voting block that could make a really transformative impact. Part of the effort right now on the right is to silence young people generally. We see that in all kinds of voting laws that penalize transient voters and what have you. That’s an interesting place of conflict right now, and vulnerability in the older ideology of power.”



Ashley Jardina

“Among undecided white voters, there’s a good chance they will lean towards the Republican Party.”

“Most Americans lean towards one party or the other. They’re often reluctant to reveal their partisan identification. I think the thing we ought to worry about there is that probably part of that anxiety lies in the fact that many of those probably do lean towards Trump and are reluctant to mention that. We’re probably undercounting those people in some of our polling data.”

Faculty Participants

Ashley Jardina
Ashley Jardina is an assistant professor of political science at Duke. She studies how racial attitudes and group identities influence political preferences and behavior. Her 2019 book, “White Identity Politics,” explores emerging patterns of white identity and collective political behavior and the significance of in-group identity and favoritism.

Adriane Lentz-Smith
Adriane Lentz-Smith is associate professor and associate chair in Duke's department of history, where she teaches courses on the civil rights movement, black lives and modern America. A scholar of African American history and 20th century U.S. history, she is writing a book about police violence during the twilight of the civil rights era.

Gunther Peck
Gunther Peck is an associate professor of history and an associate professor of public policy. He also directs the Hart Leadership Program at Duke, where he researches the history of human trafficking and its relationship to the evolution of racial ideology, humanitarian intervention, and immigration policy in North America and Europe. 

Duke experts on a variety of topics related to politics and public policy can be found here.