It’s all been said and written already: the pollsters’ failures, the shock and horror at the electoral triumph of a completely unqualified, fundamentally offensive clown—a Berlusconi with access to the nuclear codes. The country’s hard right political turn, mirroring global shifts, and the awfulness of each day’s news of the installation of misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, self-interested evil millionaires and billionaires in the new administration. The primacy of fake news, the seeming irrelevance of actual facts, the pusillanimity of mainstream media in normalizing the abnormal.
But I followed the 2016 presidential campaign, and am following the sequelae of the election, both as a horrified citizen and as the twelve-year ethnographer of the most popular and politically consequential black American radio show you never heard of. The Tom Joyner Morning Show broadcasts drive-time weekdays from a hundred black radio stations nationally to an audience of more than eight million. And thereby hangs the tale.
The TJMS offers music, comedy, information, politics, and activism, all in one aesthetically pleasing bundle, to its core audience: adult to middle-aged, working- to middle-class black Americans. It provides them—us—with what we could call the black working-class version of Jon Stewart and company’s sardonic political humor. In other words, it is a window into the political world of one key group of the American working class.
The show’s politics, countering widespread stereotypes about black Americans, are extraordinarily progressive—feminist, pro-LBGTQ, broadly antiracist, social democratic, often anti-imperialist, despite the show’s fully commercial status. It played a major, yet entirely unrecognized activist role in President Obama’s 2008 victory and in the 2012 campaign. The TJMS’s work, along with that of other black media and civil rights organizations, had material political consequences: black American women voted in higher percentages than any other segment of the American population in 2008, and the Brookings Institution concluded that minority voters put Barack Obama over the top in 2012. The TJMS thus truly constitutes a mediatized, progressive black counterpublic.
President Obama himself has recognized that reality repeatedly on the show. So how did this largest media platform for African Americans deal with the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath?
This time around, there was a surprising softening: while the show continued its voter hotline, those who produce it didn’t coalesce with other organizations as they had previously. They didn’t engage in all-out efforts to register voters, assure access to the ballot, and hype turnout until the very last months of the campaign.
Nevertheless, those behind the TJMS utterly despise Trump and strongly supported Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency. Clinton, as well as the president and First Lady, appeared frequently on the show. The crew and the audience had the very best put-downs, better jokes than anyone else’s. And their Facebook parties during each debate drew upwards of eight hundred thousad people.
This relative lack of effort was not due to the fact that Clinton is a white woman. The TJMS campaigned hard for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, and the show is distinctly feminist. A partial explanation is that Hillary Clinton seriously annoyed show anchors during the 2008 presidential campaign. Bigger factors are the Clinton campaign’s overall failure to engage with black American media, and the fact that, like most of the rest of us, those behind the TJMS thought Hillary probably had it in the bag.
In the days after the election, the TJMS was in shock and mourning, but also wonderfully defiant. Commentators stressed the deleterious effect of the 2013 Holder v. Shelby Supreme Court decision, which gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, in suppressing the black vote. News anchor Roland Martin argued that we are at the end of the Third Reconstruction, living inside a wave of historical white backlash against black American political mobilization. The Reverend Al Sharpton added: “This is as serious as it gets. We have to build a . . . movement of resistance. We survived George Wallace; we survived Reagan.”
Comedian Chris Paul’s heartbroken morning-after political doggerel included a panoply of progressive points:
There are no jokes to tell and no funny songs to make
Cause we’re living a nightmare, with four years to wake
Last night my country ’tis of thee lost all of her majestic dignity
We elected a person whose entire campaign was built on insults and inflicting pain
He lit the fire of the angry white male, and let it burn on his campaign trail
And on election day, that angry white hate carried him to wins in majority states
What do we say to our daughters after electing a man who bragged about assault and doing things with his hands
And what do our Latino neighbors make of this win, and a new America that doesn’t include them?
And where do we as black Americans go from here?
Two days later, show anchor Sybil Wilkes erupted at claims by two women celebrities, who were among the tiny group of black Trump supporters, that Trump is not a racist and xenophobe:
Tell that to the people who are writing all of those really racist . . . things . . . like build the wall! And scaring children to death because they might have to be taken out of this country even though they are United States citizens! Tell that to the Muslims that are having their headwraps ripped off of them and telling them it’s a new America! Tell that to all of the black kids who are being told that Donald Trump is in charge, you-all must leave this country now!
So where do we as Americans go from here? Again, it’s mostly all been said and written already. American progressives agree on the need for a political reset, for true coalition-building to fight the new order on every level. But there is so much damn agonizing about how we have to engage the white working class. I’d like to offer a different take: we have to engage with and genuinely fight to improve the quotidian lives of Americans of color, our inevitable demographic majority, the bulk of whom are working-class. One of the ways to figure out how do this is by paying attention to minority media.