The Trump Effect in Birmingham

Black Alabamians on Doug Jones’ win and how life is different under Trump.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Yelp.
Fife’s is a long-running diner in downtown Birmingham.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Yelp.

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—The day after an exciting, historic election is a bit like the day after an exciting, historic football game. The high of victory has dissipated, and everyone is interested in breaking down what just happened. That was the atmosphere at Fife’s Restaurant, a long-running and well-liked diner in the city’s downtown on Wednesday morning. There was some typical morning small talk, but most of the conversation among the largely black clientele was about the remarkable outcome on Tuesday night.

“We exercised our rights and put the right person in office,” said Jason Foster, who is running for school board in the nearby city of Bessemer, told me. Foster was one of several people I asked about their thoughts on Jones and life in the state since Donald Trump’s election. “Ignorance has become more visible. They are really showing their true colors, they are not afraid to say certain things,” he said, referring obliquely to the president’s supporters. “[Trump] pushes them to be who they are.”

At a different table, the Rev. Louis Jones of Mount Hebron Baptist Church (also in Bessemer) had a similar view of how Alabama, or at least cities like Birmingham, had changed in the wake of Trump’s election. “You feel more racial tension that you didn’t feel before his campaign,” he said. “I thought we had advanced a little bit more than we had. Just look at who voted last night, it was divided between the urban and the rural folks who are still attracted to Trump.”

Presidential elections don’t just matter for our politics; they matter for our culture as well. The election of Barack Obama, for example, helped elevate a new crop of diverse voices. The election of Donald Trump produced a kind of bizarro flip side of this phenomenon, one that was predictable if you spoke to Trump’s supporters during the presidential campaign. Throughout the race, they praised him for his intemperate, abrasive rhetoric and his willingness to say what everyone is supposedly thinking, tell hard truths, and reject the straitjacket of political correctness that kept the people of this country from expressing themselves and their values.

This was nonsense. Trump trafficked in falsehoods and untruths. He didn’t buck political correctness as much as he indulged it, channeling the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-black prejudices of his most fervent supporters and feeding them racist fantasies in return. And he was rewarded for it, winning votes—and the presidency—on the power of that performance. It’s no surprise then that those same supporters would see his victory as permission to indulge those attitudes in public, in the same way that Trump has spurred a crop of candidates who see no shame in stoking white racism.

There’s data to bolster this perception that racial prejudice has become more overt in the wake of the 2016 campaign and election. The share of all Americans who believe racism is a major problem in society has been growing since 2008, following Obama’s election. But that number jumped sharply in 2015 and 2016, as growing numbers of Democrats and black Americans expressed worry over increasing racism. Among blacks, the percent who say racism is a “big problem” has grown from 73 percent on the cusp of the presidential election (itself a 39-point increase from 2009) to 81 percent in the summer of this year.

The license these Alabamians say they see among their white counterparts is likely real, and given the events of the fall, where President Trump went repeatedly to the well of stoking white racial resentment, there’s a strong chance it will get worse. But the reaction has also sparked a backlash that manifested at the polls on Tuesday.

As for takeaways from the election, which—even if Doug Jones isn’t seated until the new year, has huge implications for the balance of national power between Democrats and Republicans—Michael Franklin, another patron of Fife’s, had this thought.

“One vote does count,” he said, after one of his dining companions pointed out that Senate Republicans only passed the recent tax bill by one vote, and would have repealed the Affordable Care Act if not for one vote. “Our people should always remember that one vote counts, and it can make the difference for the whole country.”