• Dr. Nickey Woods

How critical race theory frames Trump’s claims of voter fraud

Updated: Jan 13

When the 2020 presidential race was called for Joe Biden, no one should have been surprised that Donald Trump would claim that widespread voter fraud was responsible for the outcome. After all, he spent months, if not years, claiming that the election would be rigged. He did the same after the 2016 presidential election, alleging that millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton by undocumented immigrants. It’s a grievance he is unwilling to abandon, unable to divorce himself from the idea that he could lose the popular vote only if Democrats cheated. Trump is again losing the popular vote, this time by over five million votes.

Trump and a host of his ring-wing sycophants continue to claim that the election, in which voters turned out in historic numbers — flipping Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia in the process — is the result of nefarious and illegal acts by Democrats. “We win because of our ideas, we lose elections because they cheat us,” Lindsey Graham told Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel Monday night.

As media outlets continued to highlight the role that African-American voters in Pennsylvania and Georgia played in flipping states that Trump won in 2016, he filed lawsuits in both states while claiming that rampant election fraud was afoot. It’s notable that 42% percent of Philadelphia’s residents are African-American, as are 52% of Atlanta’s. In the past, Trump has referred to largely African-American, largely urban areas as “disgusting.” Trump’s long and abiding history with race goes back decades.

Trump is also known for his obsessive, almost pathological need to win and a deep aversion to losing. He’s reportedly cheated at golf and has repeatedly told throngs of supporters that if he loses the election, that he’ll perhaps leave the country. But his claims of massive fraud in areas where lots of African-American folks live speak to a deeper issue, especially as Trump has publicly criticized the brilliant and thought-provoking 1619 Project by Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, critical race theory, and other efforts that seek to address America’s complicated and painful relationship with race. In September, Trump tweeted that critical race theory “is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!”

I spent a good deal of time examining critical race theory in pursuit of my doctorate. Trump and those who support his baseless claims of voter fraud demonstrate why the theory is relevant to understanding what we see unfolding in America right now. Trump’s attacks on American democracy — and by extension African-American voters — position critical race theory as especially relevant to this moment.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory emerged in the 1980s as an analysis of the prevalence of racism in American society. The theory does not view racism as an abnormality; rather, critical race theorists begin with the premise that racism is a normal and endemic part of our social fabric. America has always struggled to deal with its original sin, and many of Trump’s supporters chimed in when he denounced the theory. They were outraged that anyone would dare claim that this great nation is fundamentally racist.

For African-Americans, however, it boggles the mind that one could claim that America is not racist; years of individual and collective experiences tell us otherwise. Great-grandparents have shared firsthand accounts of growing up in segregated communities, of having to drink from separate water fountains and learn in separate and unequal schools.

Within the context of our most sacred democratic right, racism manifests as having to wait for hours to vote because of limited voting locations in African-American communities. It manifests as voter ID laws intentionally designed to discriminate against voters of color. It manifests as ballots cast by voters of color in Florida being flagged for possible rejection at higher rates. It manifests as the president of the United States positioning himself as the victim of African-American political thievery, promulgating negative stereotypes about voters of color in the process.

Critical race theory scholars suggest that the reason why society fails to see racism is because it is such a common experience that its existence is often taken for granted. So when Mike Pence balked at the idea that systemic racism exists in America during the vice presidential debate, I wasn’t surprised. Another aspect of critical race theory is the privileging of some stories while censoring the counterstories and experiences of people of color. The rural, white Trump voter has often been centered at the narrative of the American voter experience, leading Ryan Cooper to write that the media is “blinded by its obsession with rural white Trump voters.” The story of the power of the African-American voter has gained traction only recently, owed in large part to the efforts of Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and others, who have worked tirelessly to give voice to voters of color.

It strains credulity that Trump and many in his orbit deny the tenets of critical race theory while proposed legislation to restore the watershed Voting Rights Act remains stalled in Congress. Modern-day voter suppression is well-documented and may well have altered the results of Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election.

As Trump decries critical race theory as a “sickness,” his claims of cheating and corruption among African-American communities only draw more attention to the importance of considering how the theory might help us understand the experiences of marginalized voters in America — and just how much work remains to be done.

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