Chad Williams, chair of the department of African and African American Studies at Brandeis University, admits he was optimistic heading into Tuesday night. He had hoped “America would get it right this time” and that Joe Biden would win resoundingly. But as he watched President Trump gain an edge in key swing states like Florida and North Carolina, it became apparent to Williams that the president hadn’t lost his appeal. Indeed, in some counties, Trump did better Tuesday night than he did in 2016.
At 9:44 p.m. Williams tweeted, “Damn, white supremacy is resilient.”
As results trickled in, it became evident that neither candidate would be able to claim a quick and decisive victory. But to some Black Americans, muddled voting tallies signaled a clear victor: American racism.
“Trump and his campaign very sinisterly made clear their hierarchy — their place in the racial hierarchy — was effectively at stake in this election. And I think that motivation of white fear, of white grievance, of white rage remains very powerful and was key to the results that we’ve seen so far,” Williams said.
Damn, white supremacy is resilient.— Chad Williams (@Dr_ChadWilliams) November 4, 2020
A critical voting bloc for Democrats who overwhelmingly rejected Trump in 2016, many Black voters felt the choice for 2020 was clear: A vote for the incumbent would be a vote in favor of racist policy and rhetoric. But even given the stakes — and following a summer that saw millions march for racial justice — the country overall was split roughly down the middle, a fact that several exasperated Black voters called “disappointing but not surprising.”
“The impulse in this country for the status quo never ceases to amaze me . . . and on some level, that’s a strength — that’s how we get stability,” said David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “But that stability is a system of white supremacy and racial oppression.”
In the last few months of the campaign, Trump capitalized on the fears of white suburbanites, with inflammatory talk of law and order and rising crime. Long before final results were set to be called in Michigan, Wisconsin, and several other key states, social media was already abuzz with lessons drawn from the close contest.
“To be clear, this wasn’t a presidential election, it was just a survey on how much this country loves racism and most white people checked the box for ‘very satisfied,’ ” tweeted comedian and writer Robin Thede.
To be clear, this wasn’t a presidential election, it was just a survey on how much this country loves racism and most white people checked the box for “very satisfied”— Robin Thede (@robinthede) November 4, 2020
Another writer, Michelle Singletary, tweeted, “Whoever wins, I live in a country in 2020 where so many have viewpoints that aren’t that much different than the time in which my people were enslaved and that is making me cry right now."
Maybe it’s the series I’m writing on race and money but my heart is so heavy. Whoever wins, I live in a country in 2020 where so many have viewpoints that aren’t that much different than the time in which my people were enslaved and that is making me cry right now. #Election2020— Michelle Singletary (@SingletaryM) November 4, 2020
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, was also watching results closely, but on Wednesday, she felt it was still too early to “draw any firm conclusions about what this election means.” Many lessons were still taking shape, she said, including the significance of increased Black and Latino turnout in several Southern and Southwestern states.
Brown-Nagin, a scholar of history and constitutional law, said that lingering inaccuracies in polling had set many Biden voters up for disappointment. “People’s expectations are raised about the margin of victory, and then their hopes are dashed,” she said. “I can appreciate that Black voters in a state like Massachusetts, which is a blue state . . . would be disappointed with the closeness of outcomes in other parts of the country."
The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, of the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester, had anticipated a close contest, particularly in the battleground states of the Upper Midwest. The lead pastor of a predominantly Black congregation, Culpepper remained optimistic that the tide would turn in Biden’s favor thanks to Black voters.
“We’re in a battle for the soul of the country and so, no, I’m not disheartened because when you’re in the midst of the battle, you understand that you’re still fighting every step of the way,” Culpepper said. “And I’m not one to think that just because of an election, that that’s going to change hearts.”
Hodan Hashi of Jamaica Plain watched votes come in “in a state of hopelessness." The results, almost equally split between Trump and Biden, felt disconnected from her circle in Massachusetts, which includes young members of the racial justice group Black Boston 2020, which she cofounded this spring. “I don’t see the other 50 percent [of the country]. It feels like I see people supporting human rights,” she said.
Hashi, 22, said that while she was disappointed by Trump’s 2016 victory, results this year have “hit harder,” as they follow “four years of Donald Trump being racist, being homophobic, being transphobic.”
“Half the country apparently likes that about him or at least doesn’t see it as being a deal breaker, which I think is a very scary reality to wake up to this morning,” she said. “Because of that, regardless of who wins, that fact isn’t going to go away.”
Hashi said she and other organizers will persist in their calls for racial justice, no matter the final result. “Even if we do see a Joe Biden win, that’s great, but it’s not a solution to the problem," she said.
Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia acknowledged that many Black voters, particularly young people, feel that their concerns will not be heard regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. “We can’t deny the truth of the matter, that when it comes to race and racism, it’s very much alive here in this country,” she said.
“But who allows it and who fuels it changes everything,” Mejia said. “Right now, Black and brown people don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe. . . . I am mourning the loss of our soul.”
Our beloved country is having an identity crisis. We are divided by values, lost in hate, torn by beliefs & conflicted by morals. We need a therapy session, a dose of political courage & strong conviction to handle local politics while America sorts itself out. #AllMeansAll— Julia Mejia (@juliaforboston) November 4, 2020
"When you see millions of people voting in support of hate, and when you grew up in this country having people tell you you don’t belong here, and to think about four more years . . . that hurts,” she said.
Boston City Council president Kim Janey said that national divisions only reinforce the need for political and racial justice organizing at the local level, a type of engagement she said she is proud to see among her constituents.
“I think it’s important for us to remember that we are not going to solve systemic racism in one election," Janey said. She added that no president, whether Biden or Trump, would achieve the type of change and racial equity she hopes to see.
“We have to continue to do this work regardless of the outcome," she said. “We are the ones we’re waiting for.”
Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore. Deanna Pan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.