fb-pixelThe overwhelming Whiteness of the early primaries - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
About this section

Connecting past to present, revealing the ripple effect of discriminatory systems — and the fixes.

Q&A

The overwhelming Whiteness of the early primaries

Iowa and New Hampshire have all but sealed a Trump-Biden rematch — with nearly zero input from Black voters. A social-movement scholar on what that means for democracy

Stephanie Drenka, Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Amid sub-zero temperatures, huddled in snow-covered gymnasiums and community centers, Iowans gathered on January 15 to cast the first votes of the 2024 presidential primaries. However, per CNN entrance polls, the Republican Iowa caucus had 0% Black participation. In the New Hampshire Republican primary a week later, 1% of voters were Black.

The nominating process for the two major parties is all but decided already, and we’ve had virtually no input from non-White voters.

I spoke with Dr. Marcus Board Jr., an associate professor at Howard University and contributor to last July’s Political Parties and American Democracy report from the American Political Science Association, to find out how we got here and what it means for our democracy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

***

Alex LaSalvia: We just saw Donald Trump dominate the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. When we elevate these racially non-representative places in the electoral process, how does it affect our priorities and our democracy?

Marcus Board Jr.: It paints a dishonest picture of what’s actually happening in the United States by prioritizing White spaces. By doing that, you are promoting an idea of politics in this country that suggests we can continue pushing for a version of the American Dream that has never existed for most people.

There’s this idea of the American Dream. We talk about it as success, we talk about it as opportunity, we talk about it as a hope for people. But we don’t always specify what it actually means. It is very clear that the American Dream is tied to Whiteness, land, and power.

What [Trump] has done well is tap into the fact that that lifestyle is dying. It isn’t necessarily because the United States is not continuing to exploit people economically, but rather that that exploitation is no longer sufficient to provide fire departments, and a hospital, and schools, and roads, and public goods and services in these more rural areas. And so those people are fed up.

Is [Trump] helping it? No, but he is speaking directly to it, and that is very effective at getting that group of people who have been primed to this idea of American politics to the Iowa or New Hampshire caucus. They’ve been primed to think that that is their God-given right. And we see the results.

How is this tied to the Republican Party nationwide being a very White party?

It isn’t just a White party, I think that’s the thing that people miss. It is a White elitist party. And that is where Trump is infiltrating their agenda and saying that White elitism still runs on dominating White people, and those white people are then put in a position to dominate other groups. That’s still the basis of the party. The problem is the reward is not, as we might say, is not giving like it used to.

The Republican Party being an ethno-party — being for all intents and purposes, entirely White — does tell us that Whiteness continues to carry the day as an idea, as a creation, [and] as something that exists for the purpose of prioritizing some groups and subordinating others in an exploitative system. Because if it didn’t, we would just beat them. There’s so many alternatives, but the system is set up for them to exist, and for the Democratic Party to lose to them.

Let’s step back: What is the role of parties in a democracy?

The role of parties is to channel needs and grievances through a political process and power distribution center. You need to figure out essentially how you’re going to respond to people’s needs, and through what means you’re going to do that.

Parties are what allow us to mobilize around our needs and grievances with a coordinated group that pulls the political levers, in theory.

What are the consequences for democracy of having two dominant racially polarized parties and is it sustainable?

The United States is one of the most demographically diverse countries on the planet. And because of that, the democracy here works differently than almost every other government on the planet. But polarization is something that has existed from the beginning.

There’s always been a party that, outwardly, believed the system could be more beneficial for all people, and then a party that is more focused on traditionalism, originalism and maintaining the status quo.

We have always been a nation that dealt with difference, so I don’t know necessarily how much baggage diversity is carrying. But if we replace the word diversity with difference, I think the conversation shifts.

When we think about race ahistorically, we miss the fact that some people just think this is the way things should be. All the data says that actually embracing difference is better for outcomes, is better for opportunity, but that is driven by a narrative of equality being what’s best, and some people think it isn’t actually possible.

What would be a Republican’s incentive for valuing racial diversity in their party?

To my Republican listener, I would focus less on racial diversity as a problem for their party and focus more on racial injustice as the problem — the fact that their party has done nothing to detract from racial justice, and has done so much to reinforce it. And if they don’t care, why am I even talking to them?

I think [that] a lot of times in these conversations, we think about what we need to do to change somebody else’s mind instead of thinking about what I can do for people whose minds I don’t have to change.

Why isn’t the Movement for Black Lives as central in this election as it was in 2020?

Let’s take it back to where it started, which is the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in 2012. Many of us who are engaged in social movements expect them to have about a 10-year life cycle. And so by most accounts, it had a good run, and was able to seed multiple new and reemerging movements around anti-war, around labor, around the environment and health.Racial justice is always going to be relevant in this country, as we know it. Whether or not we see the movement promoted is not necessarily a reflection of [whether or not] radical organizers [are] doing the work.

Part of what it means for a movement to have a typical lifespan of 10 years is you age through very fast. The folks who were on the ground in 2015 are reaching their limits and boundaries, [but] have done a great job of passing the torch and still promoting and working in their communities. And I think that is success.

Our struggles are interconnected. Black feminists introduced the idea that all of our oppressions are interlinked. They’re all connected at the root in this system of domination, and there are different ways that it manifests.

Some people will say that promoting the Palestinian cause necessarily takes away from Congo, takes away from Sudan, takes away from Tigray. But on the flip side, if you understand these oppressions as interconnected, then you advocate for Palestine in the same way that you advocate for Congo. This isn’t a tally sheet.

And again, a lot of people disagree, and not always for ridiculous reasons. You can’t talk about everyone or everything all the time. But if we acknowledge that these biases consistently push those conversations in the exact same direction — away from Black people, away from darker-skinned people, away from queer people, away from trans people, away from poor people, away non-Christians — if you think about that, then it changes things.

I can’t pretend that my win exists independent from your losses. That’s what solidarity is about.

It’s easy to see why younger voters might be disillusioned, exhausted, or even apathetic as a Biden-Trump rematch looms. What are they telling the rest of us that we need to hear?

Younger generations are disillusioned without being disengaged. They are actively fighting for their right to exist, whether it’s from gun violence, climate disaster, militarism and policing, being able to go to the bathroom and play sports, being able to be a part of the world how they want to be, being able to breathe.

They’re telling the world that we won’t take our extinction quietly. Even if we don’t win, we’re going to fight. And it’s up to you to figure out how to adjust to us because we’re not choosing to adjust, to accept your rules.

This is a resurgence of what we saw around civil rights and Black Power movements. Young people are not just active and organized, but in this generation, they are connected, and that connection has allowed them to build not just an agenda, but also a culture. And that is going to change the world.

What do they need to hear from us?

There’s this idea that everybody has to fight the fight, but sometimes folks are like, listen, I did my part, I did my best, I’m not gonna get in your way, I’m not gonna stand on your toes. I just, you know, I did my part, and I’m gonna take it easy for now. I want to actually live the freedom that I’ve been fighting for.

We get caught up in thinking every single person needs to do this. Numbers do matter, you do want a critical mass, but you can’t forget that it’s not all about the fight, but you also want to live the fruits of your labor, you want to reap the harvest for the seeds you’ve sown. If all you’re fighting for is to fight more, then you are kind of missing the point.

Alex LaSalvia is The Emancipator’s Digital Producer. He can be reached at alexla@bu.edu.