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  • November 17, 2016

What Now? The Message of This Election We Must Heed

By Andrés T. Tapia

(The views expressed here are mine alone)

In my previous post, I explored the external reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss. And while it’s highly likely that manipulations like voter suppression, untimely FBI interference, and collusion between the Russian government and Wikileaks tipped the balance in favor of Trump, we would be doing the work of diversity and inclusion a great disservice if we kept our fingers pointed outward.

I also made it plain in that post that there is no place in a pluralistic society for racism, misogyny, and the fear and degradation of those who are immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, or with disabilities and that we must be clear and brave in our condemnation of hate speech and acts.

But we must now look in the mirror. Because the deeper structural socioeconomic and cultural societal issue that played out – that was more powerful that the manipulations — was a complete misreading of the mood and realities of working class and rural whites.  And while we must also do the work of finding a way to build bridges with the most intolerant, right here I am focused on a different group of Trump supporters: the ones who voted for Barack Obama two times in a row.

In looking at electoral maps of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012 and compare them to the 2016 electoral maps we see a striking reality: there were plenty of rural white areas who voted for an African American president. Therefore, we cannot then ascribe racism as the sole driver for all Trump supporters because racists don’t vote for a black man to be their president.


2012 Presidential Election — Obama Counties…


…vs 2012 Presidential Election — Clinton Counties


So how can it be that so many of these white rural and working class voters did this switch from an Obama vote to a Trump vote? Many will ascribe it to sexism. And I’m sure this was at play for a certain percentage. But where prejudice exists there is more likely a correlation between not voting for a black man and not voting for a woman that there being a hierarchy of marginalization where a white woman fares worse than a black man in their eyes.

So here is where we need to seek to understand a constituency that too many of those who have embraced diversity and inclusion have frankly stigmatized at worst, and not sought to better understand at best.

Over the years while I have had clients in big cities such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Geneva, Sao Paulo, and Seoul I have also had clients through these US Midwestern states that went red this time. There are many in these areas I have sat across from where we have looked into each other’s eyes, and I can attest to a genuine desire on the part of many of them for the USA to be that pluralistic, diverse, and strong nation those in the cities also declare as their values and desires.

But here’s the part we have often missed: their anxiety has been growing because their world has been underdoing deep, fast, and structural changes. The lift and shift of whole factories from these communities to China and Mexico left nothing behind. Overnight livelihoods and ways of life were obliterated.

There is a direct correlation between these economic dislocations that have led to higher white male unemployment and the rise in depression and from there to the rise in opiate addiction, suicides and now, for the first time ever in generations, a decline in life expectancies among these white working class and rural populations.

And so, in their bewilderment, they seek answers and are very susceptible to someone coming along and giving them a scapegoat: those who do not look like them. And it is a highly visible scapegoat because, as we all know in the diversity and inclusion community, we have been touting these demographic changes that are changing the face not just of the big cities but also of small towns and rural areas. As they channel their anger and anxiety and blame those who don’t look like them it escalates to frightening levels of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism.

Of course, this is a destructive response. Yet it does not negate their growing sense of despair and that the root causes of it are not being addressed.

This phenomenon was also behind the support of someone else who was ideologically polar opposite to Trump: Bernie Sanders. We must look at the groundswell of support of these two candidates as fueled by some of same root causes even as these two candidates had completely different strategies for channeling the anxiety — with Trump relying on pitting one group against all the others, while Sanders clearly inclusive in intent though who nevertheless struggled with bridging the racial divide in linking white and people of color working class distress. Very unfortunately, Sanders’ movement was not truly racially diverse.

But it was Clinton who had the best opportunity to not overlook the white working class and rural constituencies. After all, the supposed Blue firewall of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had voted democratic for over 30 years which included being carried by Barack Obama.

Instead she doubled down, as we tend to do in our diversity and inclusion work, on the traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, LGBT, immigrants – with no outreach to the white working class and rural populations. How many times did Hillary go to Wisconsin during the general election? Zero. She lost there by 27,000 votes.

And in Michigan, where even though the auto industry had been bailed out by Obama, both the distaste of Trump and the feelings of being neglected by Clinton were so deep that there were 90,000 ballots filled out front and back with selections for all positions to be voted on but which left the presidential nominee option blank.  Clinton lost Michigan by less than 12,000 votes.

In other words, if there had been even just a bit more white working class and rural inclusion – without having to give up the messages of inclusion of all the other groups – we would not be having to blame the FBI nor the Russians nor Wikileaks for the debacle. While it´s clear these developments tipped the election, they would not have been enough to do so if Clinton’s position had not been eroded by these deeper reasons.

If we say we are about inclusion, then we need to be about inclusion of all. After all, we are all citizens of the same nation with a mutual desire for a better life for our families and communities.

So we have a two-pronged complex challenge before us: on the one hand to be vigilant against the frightening anti-diversity forces that have been unleashed and, on the other, to initially reach into the margins of Trumpland and seek common cause.


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