Robin Kelly

Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chain in U.S. History at UCLA

Kimberle Crenshaw:

What is it that we have missed? What do we need to understand where we are historically? Have we been in a place like this before? Are there elements of this that feel like the end of the first Reconstruction? Are there lessons that you think that we need to pull forward in thinking through what now?


Robin Kelley:
Yeah. Here’s the short version of a very long answer. That is, we could begin amply with the electoral college. There’s been a lot of talk about the electoral college as a relic of the founders’ elitism. We also have to remember that it’s primarily a relic of slavery. That the politics of slavery produced that institution. That the Three-Fifths clause was applied to the electoral college and that, in fact, even in the election of 1800, really centered around slave states having more power than non-slave states.

The myth, and the one that we're still carrying now, which is why this system is so arcane, is that states with smaller populations somehow need to be at the table in an equitable way with those with large populations. In fact, it wasn’t about populations, it was about slaves. It was about those states that have slaves, that they count three out of five for Congressional representation. That’s why the South dominated the presidency for so long. At the end of slavery, of course, you get Reconstruction.

One of the most famous cases of electoral college deciding or not really deciding an election was the famous Hayes–Tilden Compromise, from the 1876 election. Without going into that story, it’s very simple. You have a case of, once again, suppressed Black votes, which were not counted. Rather than try to count them, the Republicans and the Democrats came to an agreement, where the Republican got the presidency in exchange for withdrawing troops from the South.

That reminds us that the problems of the electoral college, the problems of the electoral system, go hand in hand with voter suppression. As we think about this past election, we do have to pay attention to the way that the gutting of the Voting Rights Act played a role. One last thing, finally: People talk about this as a story of disaffected voters. Of angry white men who supposedly were suffering economically and feel forgotten, and that Trump’s populist message represented the nation’s distrust of Washington or the insider, inside-the-Beltway Washington.

The problem is that race and class are treated separately, rather than intersectionally. The way in which this white middle and working class sees their disaffection is in racial terms. Which is why, in the polls, they’ll say, “Look, immigration and terrorism are more important than jobs.” Both those categories, immigration and terrorism, are racial categories in some ways. It comes down to who’s the enemy because no one is talking about eliminating the Klan or eliminating the “alt-right” or eliminating the rise of white terrorism. This is a real issue in our country, as if that's not really the terrorism we’re talking about.

In fact, if anything, we choose the legitimacy of white terrorism and white racism on a very high scale. Given that history, and given the fact that, in every single instance of biracial or multiracial coalition building in our history, it’s usually been led by people of color, led by Black people, with white people following.

Some of those who have led those movements, like populist movements and Reconstruction, have actually wanted to change the country, change the culture. Do something much more visionary than, say, solve an immediate problem. In other words, it’s not utilitarian. One of the things we have to think about as we move into the future is that, if we’re going to build multiracial coalitions, that we don’t need to reach out to disaffected white men in order to sell them on how this benefits them.

People have to be willing to envision a different future, a different country. Take a much more radical step, because otherwise, we're going to be back in the same place over and over again.


Kimberle Crenshaw:

Thank you, Robin. I take that as a push for, not a move to purple, but a move to true blue, right?


Robin Kelley:

Or a red, but the other red.


Kimberle Crenshaw:

The other, true red. One of the points that you made, and I was hoping we would hear from the amazing Barbara Arnwine on the vote suppression issue. There’s so much that happened, and so little coverage on it, even leading up to the election. What’s your sense of what was behind the media’s refusal to take seriously the impact of voter suppression? We can go all the way back to the Gore election. There was much more of a focus on the hanging chad tan on the hundreds of thousands of votes that would have made the difference that were suppressed from a direct, targeted campaign.


Robin Kelley:

One of the things, this may not be a direct answer, but an indirect answer, is that we do have some lessons we can learn from the recent election—not just the 2000 election, which is the one we already referred to. Even if we think about the election of Ronald Reagan, and what that election meant, because in some ways, it's very similar, he was a candidate that no one thought, no one really took that seriously. People were shocked by his election in some respects. He very much mobilized around a white, anti-tax, anti-immigrant, anti-Black movement.

It also coincides with the period in the 1980s where there are all these investigations—and I know Mary Frances Berry was there, looking at them as well—into not just vote suppression, but violent suppression of Black political constituencies in the South. There’s a long, consistent history of this, and we need to pay to pay attention to it, and  not just the ability to get people mobilized to vote, but the recognition that, at least among those who are most suppressed, we have the highest percentage of participation in voting. So something like waiting in line for eight or ten hours, or six hours or three hours is a form of vote suppression.