Published November 17, 2020 by Bowdoin Magazine


Assistant professor of government Chryl Laird’s book with Ismail White, Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, had the authors making the rounds of national news programs throughout summer.

Photo of Chryl Laird
Assistant Professor of Government Chryl Laird. Photo: Séan Alonzo Harris.

What prompted the research in this book?

A few years ago, we actually had a published piece in the American Political Science Review from the initial stages of the project. We had done these experiments, and basically what we were thinking about when we sat down in 2012—that was when we ran the first study—was trying to understand Black political behavior, specifically with partisanship. Because, in our field, what has been heavily used to explain Black behavior is this concept known as “linked fate.” 

And linked fate is research that comes from several scholars, but particularly Michael Dawson's book Behind the Mule. He argues that African Americans behave in a political way where they believe—a majority of Black people believe—that what happens to the group has an effect on their individual lives. So they behave in a politic that is group-centered because of their shared historical experiences of being Black in the United States.

But when we did analysis of this measure known as linked fate—and it's used to predict all kinds of things, like support for Black candidates, support for race-based policies. But when we looked at it for predicting Democratic partisanship, it didn't actually predict. And, typically, prediction for Democratic partisanship, as we've gone along and it's become more polarized in terms of the two parties, ideology is often the best predictor of partisanship. So conservative ideological individuals typically vote Republican; liberal-leaning ideological individuals vote Democrat. But that also doesn't predict with African Americans.

So we were wanting to understand how we have moved further and further away from the point where we see African Americans really align with the Democratic party as a block-voting group in the 1960s, and why would it still be the case today? Because these things that we typically use to predict partisanship aren't necessarily providing us with the predictors. But the collective voting that we see of African Americans continues to prevail and has maintained. So that is what was the impetus for the project. We were like: "Black people vote for Democrats. Why? Why do they keep doing it? Why do they keep doing it as we move further and further away from the civil rights movement? Why do they keep doing it at 80 and 90 percent levels? And why don't our traditional measures tell us this?" 

So we sat down and really tried to think about “How do you create a social behavior among a group of individuals and get them to behave that way collectively on a regular basis?” And we came to this idea that it seems to be much more of a social phenomenon and that we need to think more about the social forces that are at play for why this works so effectively. Because no other group really has been able to replicate this degree of cohesion when it comes to their partisan politics. When we think of specific social identities, like race, gender, that doesn't seem to happen. So, why is this? 

And so that's when we started to think about “What do we know about Black people?” We are African Americans. What do we understand about how partisanship works? I think one of the big things that Ismail and I talked about was, if a Black person tries to tell other Black people that they're not a Democrat, what happens? [Laughs]. And we were like, they're essentially ostracized from the group. Immediately. Without hesitation, without concern. They are out. And how does that whole process work? So that's what we investigate in the book: trying to not only theorize it, but how do we empirically test a social process? And so then we had to get pretty creative to do that [laughs].


Why do you think the book has garnered so much attention?

Ismail and I wrote a book about Black people, and about Black people having political agency in a capacity that I think is woefully underestimated by our politicians, by the media, by people who discuss Black politics. I think there's a very simplistic explanation for Black behavior. It is one that assumes a naivete about Black people. It assumes a lack of awareness about Black people.

And Ismail and I point out that Black people are incredibly savvy. They're incredibly sophisticated. They're very aware of the constraints in the system that they are in. And because of all of that, they are engaging in a solidarity politics to maximize and optimize their voice in a system that has them in a minority position. They know what they're doing. And they know the forces at hand that try to diminish that power. And so they are very clear in understanding the need to really think about how they engage in politics to ensure that they have a say. And, again, that nuance is not typically given.

So that would be one of the reasons why I think it has gotten a lot of attention. I think the other thing is that Black space is heavily segregated, which is a piece of the theory that we talk about. Black people are engaging with, on most occasions, other Black people. Which means that white individuals do not necessarily have much of an inside understanding of the group dynamics and its politics. There are assumptions being made about what Black people are thinking, but people don't actually know because it's rare that they're actually in those spaces and thoughtfully engaging with them.

So I think what we do is provide those insights. We speak to nuance. We speak about Black people in a way that I don't think has been typically done before. There's often an essentialism that is given to Black people. We do it at the highest levels. So I think it's in tandem that the question we ask is interesting; the book is published with a prominent press; we come with the data to support it—so these aren't claims that are just being made from the hip or something, but it comes with a lot of support empirically as well as qualitatively. And so I think it's allowed for clarity, I think, on what people are understanding about Black behavior.


In a country that places such value on “democracy,” why is US voter turnout so low?

Well, one is, we make it very difficult to vote in the United States. Why isn't Election Day a national holiday? Why is it that you can't do early voting in some states but in other states you can? Why is it that voter registration isn't on the spot in most places? You have to do it in advance. And we also don't require voting, which some other nation states do. Like Australia, for instance, require it. But they also take the day off for voting and the elections. So I think, in the United States, there's a lot of hurdles to voting. And those challenges, I think, create a system and a structure where people are less inclined.

I think additionally when it comes—especially at the national level, but when you have a type of political system that we have—when we think about the founders, there's a lot of debate about what they were thinking, but I don't know if they realized the party system that would emerge when they were writing the Constitution. Because the design of how our system, with a winner-take-all, single-member district design, it limits the party system to two parties at the federal level, in terms of winning office. And so if people are disenchanted with either one of the—with both parties—they don't necessarily have a lot of options there. You're stuck with that. 'Cause third parties typically won't win based off the design of the system itself. It always leads to two parties. 

So, if I'm apathetic, if I'm not really excited about voting, the civil society may be encouraging me to vote, but the structure itself makes a lot of limitations to my ability to vote. I hear some people think that their vote doesn't matter. I think that that would be another thing as well. So this notion of political efficacy, like I teach about in my political behavior class: I have to feel like what I'm going to do is going to matter. That's an internal efficacy. And an external efficacy is, will the institutions respond to what I want and what I'm asking for? And people seem to lack a little bit at least in the internal efficacy, and possibly even in the external efficacy. And so they don't engage.

The access to the franchise has been historically contested space since the founding of the nation, right? Like who can vote, what credential do you need to be able to vote, how are we defining citizen has been a long battle. And then, even when you are a citizen, who gets access to the franchise? So it was white men who owned property for a long period of time. So an elite bourgeoisie class of men making the decisions. Then the franchise gets expanded to white men more broadly. Then it gets expanded to African Americans but then it's restricted almost immediately after that, after reconstruction, when they saw what potentially could happen with the access to the franchise for Black people and Black men, again, specifically. The expansion for women. 

Historically we have done a lot to limit something that seems to be tantamount to our government system to most of its citizens.


The way the system is broken now—do you see any way that it can be repaired?

I guess it depends on what we would see as the broken part of it. I think more things can be done to improve access to the franchise. We could not limit voting access by shortening early voting days. We could make it a national holiday. We could encourage people to vote. We could even create a requirement for voting maybe to think about. But at least we could make it easier. We could make on-the-spot voting. So those are all choices that can be done.

Now, the structure itself has its own issues, right? So if we're thinking again at the federal level, presidential politics, one of the challenges that is faced with the vote is that the vote, because of checks and balances in its design, can be contested and even put aside if the Electoral College goes in another direction. And people who've talked about the history of the Electoral College point to how it is a vestige of slavery. It has a lot in its design that empowers Southern states of the United States. And we haven't really revised any of this as the society has changed over time. So we would need to think about: do we want something like an Electoral College deciding these elections? Should somebody be able to know what the popular vote is in their state?

We don't really necessarily need that anymore. So I think it's broken in any number of ways. And then the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, from Shelby v. Holder. We need to fix that again, and all those states that were like, "We aren't gonna do anything problematic again just because you got rid of these preclearances," and I'm like, "But then y'all went and did. You went and created voter ID laws, or you closed polling stations, or you—suddenly the federal oversight being removed leads to you acting kind of crazy," which has historically always been the case. Federal oversight was there during Reconstruction and, as soon as they took out the federal troops, we head into one of the worst periods of American history for African Americans, with high levels of lynching and coercive violence toward them. Especially in the southern region of the United States. That leads to the Great Migration out of that space.

So it seems like we could do more interventions. And I'm hopeful. I think it will require the leadership to really come forward and say that we need to do something. But I don't necessarily see, for instance, us getting away from a two-party system. 'Cause neither party has an incentive to change that.


August 6 was the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Could you explain more on how it's been weakened over the years and how it can be strengthened again.

So, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had the preclearance requirements and so it ensured that, in states and locations where there had been a long history and practice of discriminatory things to basically impede the franchise from voters, especially African American voters or voters of color, that they had to have gotten federal approval to change a polling station, to change the date of an election. All these things all required federal supervision if they were going to do any of this, and approval. And the states made an argument that this is a vestige of something of yesteryear, they're not like this, and that they shouldn't have to do these requirements because it inhibits them from being able to make changes that need to be done and have more flexibility as things change in their communities.

Photo of Chryl Laird
Assistant Professor of Government Chryl Laird. Photo: Séan Alonzo Harris.

Were these legitimate concerns or is this a thoughtful way to disenfranchise?

I would say that it's probably—it's a good strategic argument. Yes, are there probably things that become difficult? Let's say you find that a polling station doesn't work now for an election and you need to move it, and it's going to take weeks to have that done, and maybe it just happened. That would be a problem, right? That would be a challenge for a state to be able to get that done the way they wanted to. But I think the argument that they make that they are no longer like how they were in the past—I would beg to differ [laughs] on those practices and what has been done. Yes, we do not have things like grandfather clauses or literacy tests or formal poll taxes, like you go to the polls and they literally want you to pay money. 

But we have all kinds of other things that are prohibitive to voting, and many of these states got behind them without hesitation. Things like voter ID laws, which tend to disenfranchise older voters, voters of color. Everybody doesn't have an ID that is state-issued. You don't actually need a state-issued ID to be able to function in society. Although people assume so. And the closing down of polling stations then makes it that there are long lines at other locations, because people now have to all vote in one space. So that type of stuff is just as demonstrative. Or trying to change election days. I think that's another thing that's often been done, switching around election days or confusing people about elections. 

There have not necessarily been state-sanctioned efforts to try to confuse people. But many political action committees and other organizations that may be working in some of those regions can send out flyers to houses in certain zip codes in an attempt to try to make them believe the election is on another day to keep them from voting. So all those are things that the Voting Rights Act would help to minimize as much as possible. And with the gutting of it, those states are empowered to do all kinds of things that are problematic and not really have much—there isn't much federal intervention available without creating a new Voting Rights Act, essentially, that speaks specifically to the current situation. And Congress needs to do that.

Do you think that with a new administration, they’ll go back to the norms and it will be difficult to change things? Or do you think that they might see this as an opportunity to change the system and make improvements for people?

They may be in a better position to put these things into place. And they're positioned to do this, I think, because of a number of reasons. But part of it is because of Trump himself coming into the space and showing a different version of the presidency than we've seen in contemporary times. And I also think because of this pandemic. Right? So the social safety net is—we are now more aware of its fragility or nonexistence than we'd ever really been before, and that anyone is susceptible to needing it. And we can't necessarily have it in a weakened state. So I think that if they play their cards on this, they are in a position to defy some of what is expected, which is kind of the slow-moving train of how things work, if they can get the collective of the party behind them. 

At this point—to use Trump's words—there's nothing really to lose at this point with trying to push that. There will obviously be pushback from those who don't agree. But I think taking a more progressive step is a good thing. I don't know how far out, though, Harris and Biden are going to go. Because they're both fairly moderate. So I think it would be very much dependent on who they fill their cabinets with and what type of compromise or agreements they can come to with how they should go about policy. 

But I think this is a perfect time to make a call for improving things that are more progressive leaning. People are mad. You have multiple things. You have a president that is definitely—a lot of people have issues with the way that he operates. There's the Black Lives Matter movement happening, and so the call and outcry about racial injustice, along with the video of George Floyd. You have the pandemic. I mean, there's so many things that I think there is room for them to try to be more progressive.


Now that Biden has named Senator Harris as his running mate do you think there's going to be an upswell in Black participation generally? And are Black women going to be instrumental again?

Black women will be instrumental for sure. They are almost always instrumental in elections. They turn out in higher rates than any other racial and gender group. They support the Democratic candidates more so than any racial and gender group. And so they will be key. And I think they are key in this regard for a number of reasons. Not only their vote, but recently I did this Code Switch interview, and I talked about how Black women, they don't vote alone. They vote and they also get ten others voting. So they have a power, a collectivism within the community. They are also often the custodians of the social sanctioning of people for their behavior when they seem to be stepping out of line, with the expectation especially of the Democratic partisanship.

So I think they will be essential. Mobilizing them and getting them the resources to get others mobilized will be the linchpin to turnout in various swing states that will be vital for him to be able to win the Electoral College. 

In terms of Black turnout, it went down—that's often sited—in 2016. Now, Ismail and I are of the argument, y'all say it went down. It went down relative to Obama. If this was a normal data set, Obama would be considered an outlier and you potentially jettison him from your data sample because he's an outlier. So you can't use that as a comparison point. If you look back to 2004, Black people turned out at about the same rate they did in 2004.

I don't think Biden should ever be expecting he's gonna get Obama numbers. From Black people specifically. I don't think he should be expecting that. I think he can do better than 2016. But to do that he would need to tap into the social networks, which means he needs to tap into the Black women. And that's where I would be putting Harris specifically, to really help with that.


It gets to you and Ismail's hypothesis about the Republican Party, and Black voters tending to be socially conservative. You would think that Republicans would reach out to Black voters.

There was a period I would say in the early 2000s where it seemed as if the Republican Party was attempting to make a move toward Black conservatives. Like they were kind of doing more, at least symbolically, some gesturing to say that they were going to be appealing to those voters. And, in some cases, it led to some increased support. Like I think of, for George W. Bush, Black support for him was like 12 percent. So it was above average, which is normally about 8 percent, and that's what Trump also got. But I think as more time has moved along and the party has moved further and further and further to the right, and their politics—I mean, they've gone a lot back to the Southern strategy.

I think what the party at one point was trying to do was try to remove that baggage of history of the Southern strategy and the explicitly racial messaging that they were using at that time, and say that, "We are not the party of that anymore. We are far removed from that." But, as they have found themselves up on the defensive at certain points, at least in the twenty-first century, they are doubling down back onto that old type of practice, because the party has become the party more so of white people than anybody else.

And many of those white people in that contingent are people who economically may agree with a lot of the policies of the Republican Party, and that has long been the party for people who are economically conservative and fiscally conservative. It's been also the party of people who are socially conservative on various policies, especially those who are of the religious community, like evangelicals. But then there are a lot of people who would be drawn to some of it because some of the rhetoric is racially suggestive of wanting to maintain the status quo and that change is dangerous, and we need to stay the course on maintaining the power structures with the people in it that we want to be in there, and what we don't want are changes to that.

They might be feeling as if they move in a direction to be more inclusive that those who are not in support of that inclusivity will be much more likely to turn away from them. Now, the thing that is interesting about that is that it's a two-party system. So honestly, it would be—all of our rationale within political science has been around a notion and a modeling of a strategy by parties that they would be going for essentially the median voter. Like it's literally called “median voter theorem.” And basically people are normally distributed in their politics, and what you do is aim for the middle because the middle of that normal curve will get you the most amount of support. And that is often what you're battling for, right? The moderate. The middle person. Because there are more people in those chunks than there are on the tails. 

But, as things have become more polarized over time, and ideology and partisanship have now become almost synonymous, at least for white voters, they have moved further and further to the tails of that distribution as opposed to the middle. In the long term, that isn't gonna be something that will be sustainable, right? Because you've now lost a large portion of the curve to another group because you're focusing in on that. So it is a decision that I think is being made. But for the long-term I don't know if it would be—it probably does more damage to their party image than it will be any long-term benefit. The immediate may be beneficial, yes. You won with Trump. But long-term, ten, twenty years from now, I just don't see how their survival, as it is right now, allows them to win many elections at the highest levels.


Because of polarization, the social isolation that you and Ismail write about is becoming more predominant, isn’t it?

Someone asked, "What's the likelihood that Black people will become Republican?" And we say, "Integration." Right? Good luck [laughs]. Because segregation is so deeply entrenched into American politics and the design of our neighborhoods and our communities. It was deliberate. It was sanctioned and supported by government entities at the local, state, and national levels. It is something that is very hard to reverse course on without a proactive effort to do so, which really hasn't been done outside of things like busing programs or desegregation or things like that in education. Just in education.

But when we're looking at housing and access to housing and where you find communities of color and Black individuals, honestly without any proactive effort being done to try to address the systemic nature of segregation and its generational effects, I do not believe that even some of the efforts toward inclusivity that are being talked about now are going to put any kind of dent in that. I don't think it's going to change.

Because part of that is, African Americans in terms of where they are situated within that type of racial politic—there's also a monetization of literally the physical space of Black space and back bodies. And what I mean by that is, integrating into white space for Black people often leads to things like, for instance, white flight. We've talked historically about that.

So, white people—as more and more Black people show up into a space, they will often leave the space because they associate a drop in value of their own property because Black people now reside in their communities. And that is based off of law that had been in place prior to the Housing Act. That is actually an empirically true thing that was done to devalue properties owned by Black individuals. It's what we saw with redlining. It is what we saw with blockbusting. It is what we saw with denial of home loans. So it is deep. It is very, very deep.

And even those with the best intentions to try to address that, like white individuals moving for instance into Black communities—those communities start to change when white people arrive. Because there's a different incentive structure. So, in fact, instead of you moving in and that space now being this multiracial, cosmopolitan, really awesome—as Elijah Anderson calls it, the “cosmopolitan canopy”—slowly but surely, the people of color will be pushed out as white individuals move in. Because white individuals have more dollars, they have more wealth, they can spend more, you can increase property value. And people of color will be on the outside trying to engage but can't because they will not have the money to do it.


Given this history of a system that's always trying to work against Black people, how do Black voters continue to motivate through all those challenges, as well as the actual challenges of voting—how does the Black voting block continue to motivate?

I think it stems from an awareness of the history and that voting is one of our only weapons to fight for improvements for the group, right? And those improvements have been realized. It hasn't been a long course of history. I mean, to see the passing of John Lewis—I mean, he was a walking history book. So much of what we are all benefiting from right now was wrapped up in that man. And you stay the course, though, because it has led to—the activism and the work and the efforts of abolitionists led to the end of enslavement, enslaved Black individuals in this country.

It led to access to power and to be able to be elected into offices. It has led to representation. It has led to policies to address discriminatory practices. Like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Housing Rights Act are probably the biggest three pieces of legislation to affect race relations in this country. Honestly, I would still say these are the legislations. These are it, essentially, outside of things like the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. And so there has been clear benefit from doing these things. Does that mean that Black people are not aware that we are still in incredibly dire circumstances on most days, on average? I think they're fully aware of that. And they're fully aware that the system itself is very challenging. 

But I also feel like they recognize how much power is in the vote for them. And that taking a back seat to that can worsen an already difficult situation. Additionally, I think, there's something to be said about a full awareness about, why are people doing so much to keep you from voting? If it didn't matter that much, no one would be doing what they're doing. And Black people are very aware of that. So when it happens that you are standing in line for hours, it's like par for the course. Like I don't think any Black person is surprised anymore by it. It's like, "Oh, no, they are literally going to do whatever they can to keep us from voting. So let's go. Take up a folding chair and let's sit. Let's do this."

And we've seen that in numerous elections. And it has panned out to the point that we've had the actual election of a Black president into the presidency. It has led to numerous Black officials being elected in the Congress. It has led to Black mayors nationwide. We've had Black governors at certain points. So it is not without reason. There is benefit there. Even, all the while, the conditions for African Americans still are very disparate from white counterparts and continue to be so. But a lof of that stuff is—again, we would need to get to a place to recognize not only the decision, for instance, to deny people housing loans but the generational impact that that had, to truly begin to resolve it. That is a deeper thing. But in the meantime, yeah, we stay motivated.

And I think also, too, the third point would be that I think Black identity is very much tied to political identity, I would say, when it comes to things. Ismail and I talk about it with the book, to be Black is to be Democrat. It's an understood thing. There's a shared understanding of the history. Commitment by even representatives of government is measured in large part by demonstrations of their commitment to the community.

So people who will acknowledge—like the young lady in St. Louis who recently won, who was a Ferguson activist, over William Lacy Clay [laughs]—that was a stunning upset for her. But she showed community commitment. She was on the front lines. She was out there. She was doing the John Lewis. She was doing that kind of work. And that is very meaningful. So they're also not just blindly, I think, engaging in the politics either. There is an awareness of what they are wanting. So they stay motivated. The motivation is always there. It's always talked about. And I think it's part of just being marginalized within the system.


Do you think that we're entering a new civil rights era?

I mean, I think we've been in it, yeah. I think the BLM movement and Movement for Black Lives has been a contemporary civil rights movement. I mean, the civil rights movement is an interesting thing because I think typically we teach it as the '50s and the '60s being where we define it probably, from the death of Emmett Till until the passage of the civil rights legislation in the mid-sixties and then the assassination of Martin Luther King. However, I think AfAm scholars would say the civil rights movement has been going on since literally slave revolts and the abolitionist movement of that time. So BLM I think is just another branch of this big tree of civil rights that has been going on. It's just another node on the path.

And since 2012, when we first see the hashtag emerge around Trayvon Martin, until now, this has been a continued effort to really challenge systems and structures to really think about what's going on. And it's hard to change those things. So it's good, I think, that white individuals are starting to see the depths of what's happening and become more aware of it. Because, again, that's one thing that racial isolation and segregation does: white individuals end up being uninformed about spaces of color. Which is interesting. Because as somebody who's marginalized as a person of color within the United States, you have a very deep knowledge of white people.

So it's good to see more white individuals becoming involved. I would hope, though, that it's beyond virtue signaling. For instance, I've seen a lot of Black Lives Matter signs. It's encouraging to see the signs. Does it lead to substantive change from those individuals? We'll see. But there are reasons to think that it will be good and then there are reasons to think that things may take some time, or nothing might change at all. I'm positive. I think that things could improve. But I'm also—I don't see some massive shift happening or anything. It'll be over time. It's an over-time process.

Black people are strategic. They are thoughtful. They are nuanced. They are dealing with a ton of systemic constraints. And yet they are able to successfully influence the politics. 

Before we wrap up, is there anything that you'd like to add about your research or anything that we've been talking about?

In terms of my research, when I talk about Black voters, I try to emphasize this a lot: Black voters are often treated as if they are not very knowledgeable of the political system that they're in and that they just do some weird voting thing that nobody quite understands. And Black people are strategic. They are thoughtful. They are nuanced. They are dealing with a ton of systemic constraints. And yet they are able to successfully influence the politics, often being underestimated by those in the mainstream space because of how Black people are being viewed. And a lot of that is based off of stereotype, and some of that is based off of an assumption that people are kind of blindly participating. 

But people are very strategic. They're very thoughtful in what's going on. And the decision to be pro-partisan, toward the Democratic Party, as opposed to anti-Republican—but pro-partisan toward the Democratic Party is very different than what we've traditionally seen and is an outcome due to the very thing that was used to keep them away from white people, right? Which is segregation. That is what has allowed for this to survive: this structure that was put into place to separate Black people from white people. And so it has empowered this ability. And only in truly addressing that would you probably be able to even begin to challenge this behavior.

Black space can be recreated even outside of the brick and mortar. That's something that we talk about with respect to social media. Because we note, too, the Black Twitter space, the Twittersphere as they refer to it sometimes, is another social media space where Black people are in a position to call out those in the community who are doing this stuff that they find to be problematic.

And I think the other thing too is, with that, Black people are not necessarily that worried about our intergroup politics, about what white people think of our intergroup politics. That is also surprising. So right now hearing the discussions around Harris and in speaking to her Blackness—I feel like most Black people are like, "She's Black." It's like, "What do you mean?" The definition of Black that has operated in this country, that has been legally justified in courts at previous points, has been a one-drop-rule policy. That has been the rationale.

It has said, if you have one drop of Black blood, then you are Black by our definition of Blackness in the US context. And it has been used all of the time to justify segregation. Plessy versus Ferguson is literally, I mean, that is what sets up this precedent that allows for Jim Crow to sustain itself for 100 years. So it is remarkable now to watch some of the same individuals that invoke Blackness in this way turn around now and try to make an argument for why she isn't. It doesn't really add up, and I don't think the Black community—the Black community is kind of like, "Whatever." [laughs]

But I think this is an attempt to try to trick Black people into thinking that they shouldn't see her as one of their own. And I don't see that being the case.


With Harris’s Asian heritage, too—you think that that could be a factor?

I think it would be a very big thing. Because representation matters. At the end of the day, representation matters. And I think we often diminish how representation matters, but we know it matters for everyone. Everyone. Because when it changes from what has been the norm, those who have been very strongly in the belief that the norm should be what it is are bothered by the change. So Barack Obama becoming the first Black president is a change in representation's optics. And people who have long believed that a white man should be part of that leadership position are now struggling with a change, right?

So I think for South Asians it would be a big thing. Because she also is from that community. I think for a lot of immigrants it'll be a big thing. Because she's the child of immigrants. I think for women who want to see women representation—they think that that's an important thing—that will be an important motivator for some people as well. I think she also brings an energy that presents as what the party could potentially be in the future. And Biden is kind of like someone who comes with the seniority of the past but is passing the baton in a way to the new direction we could go in. But also with change comes discomfort. So we'll see. But I think South Asians will be very thoughtful of what this would mean for their community too, which is, again, another community that often is very invisible in our politics. And not because they're not there, but because people don't pay them as much attention.


Chryl Laird teaches courses in race and ethnic politics, urban politics, American politics, and political behavior.

Bowdoin Magazine Fall 2020 cover featuring Daniel Minter’s painting “A Morning Pond”


This story first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.