The Rhetoric of Data in the Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Rhetoric of Data in the Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates

I don’t have much to disagree with after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest piece for the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which is an excerpt from his next book. The excerpt is titled: “The First White President: the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”

I do think Coates’ rhetorical framing of the voting statistics he cites is quite misleading, but I’m will to grant that Coates’s misleadership as a writer in this particular case was unintentional.

When Coates quotes the data-crunchers at Edison Research–

 Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascardads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant.

–I must assume all the above numbers are accurate. But so are other numbers and contexts: like “Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016” as CNN’s Gregory Wallace reported at the end of last November.  Only “about 55% of voting age citizens cast ballots this year.”

So after all of the rhetoric and emotion and hard number-crunching logic behind the citations Coates gives, he has yet to consider the 45% of American voters who abstained from voting for anybody for any reason.

When Coates writes “Trump’s performance among whites was dominant,” that’s was only among  those who bothered to leave their house. Nearly half stayed home, no matter their creed or color.

Not to mention that data by the American National Election Studies “suggest that about 8.4 million 2012 Obama voters backed Trump in 2016 and 2.5 million Romney voters supported Clinton,” for whom Coates (at least in the excerpt in The Atlantic) says nothing of these voters who switched from 2012 to 2016.


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