Just before election day, several hip-hop celebrities sparked mini firestorms. Ice Cube connected with President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to pitch a proposal for supporting Black communities. Lil Wayne posed with thumbs up for a photo-op with Trump. Rapper Lil Pump was a surprise speaker at Trump's last campaign rally, and the rapper 50 Cent threatened to leave the country if Trump lost, before backtracking on that.
Many thought these hip-hop artists were canaries in America's electoral coal mine when it came to the Black vote. Post-election exit polls indicate that even though Biden won the overwhelming majority of Black votes, a greater percentage of those voters went for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Even with the exceptional energy and support of Black women for Biden in states like Georgia, Trump appears to have more than doubled his support among them nationwide from 4% to 9%. He also improved his share among Black male voters from 13% to 19%.
This saunter to the right has many pundits asking why Black people, and particularly men, were slightly less dependable Democratic voters this election cycle.
One interesting argument is that Black men have reason to respond positively to Trump's business mogul image and exaggerated masculinity. The claim is that hip-hop culture — and, by extension, Black culture — has long championed assumptions about economic achievement, social status and gender roles that parallel some traditional conservative values. And even just on style, Trump's performative bravado ("nobody has done more for the Black community" since Abraham Lincoln) might be said to mimic a classic hip-hop emcee's inflated braggadocio.
Since the 1960s, we've lived with well-worn assumptions about how racial groups line up with political parties. Throughout his presidency, Trump and the Republican Party hardened the public view that the GOP is hostile to the Black community, with Trump encouraging white supremacists and scapegoating immigrants.
And yet, Black people voted for Trump in higher percentages in 2020 than when he went up against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Even if some people would summarily dismiss hip-hop explanations or emphasize the fact that exit poll numbers can't capture the record number of Black voters who mailed in ballots this year, there is growing interest in coming up with a reason why Black voters voted for Trump at all.
Trump's better-than-expected performance has some wondering what motivated Black men to possibly vote against their own self-interest, which reminds me of the question that we seem to keep asking ourselves as a society: What is the connection between who we are and what we do? How might meaningful social identities line up with patterns of social behavior?
From the academy to the barbershop, that is the discussion we are always coming back to. We can't shake it: X people do X things, or tend to. Y people do Y things and absolutely should!
Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" is usually framed as a discussion about why working-class white Americans vote against their own material interests. A similar "what's the matter with Harlem?" question presupposes certain ideological and political positions as baked into the Black electorate.
Social categories like race are used as shortcuts for understanding links between who people are and what we expect of them, including when it comes to the ballot box. And so we continue to believe conventional assertions about the natural predisposition of members of particular racial groups, blinding us to other factors and choices being made in those groups.
Of course, that isn't to say that Black men should be voting for Trump. Only that our assumptions about the link between race and electoral politics underpin broader connections we need to examine between culture and power, between identity and action.
Race is a political category, not a biological one. But that makes it no less real. In fact, its impact on our lives is most consequential in decidedly destructive ways when it is translated into simplistic social policy. For example, we aren't even pretending to take race or racism seriously when we dismiss critical racial analysis as a threat to national security, which is the premise of Trump's recent executive order banning racial sensitivity training at agencies that receive federal funding.
One of the many scary and disheartening things about racism in America today is that we all ascribe to it, just in different ways and with lopsided results based on how we are situated in the racial order.
But this is American culture, and you don't need to scratch your head about Lil Wayne's October photo-op to realize that racial and ethnic politics are far more subtle, complex and confounding than most of us have ever been willing to admit.
John L. Jackson Jr., an anthropologist and filmmaker, is dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. This piece was written for the Los Angeles Times.