November 10, 2020; Washington Post
Why would a county in rural North Carolina primarily made up of people of color vote for Donald Trump? That’s just what Robeson County did, giving 58.6 percent of its ballots in 2020 to the President, up from 50.8 percent in 2016. Both by percentage and raw number of votes, support for Trump over the four years grew more in Robeson than in any other North Carolina county.
Robeson, in the southeastern part of the state by the South Carolina line, was once a Democratic stronghold. Before 2016, a Republican presidential candidate hadn’t carried the county since Richard Nixon did so in 1972. True, the move from absolute blue to strong red has been a common trajectory for many rural counties, particularly in the South, when whites abandoned the Democrats after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was spearheaded by Lyndon Johnson. But Robeson County is just one-fourth white, with Blacks making up 24 percent, Latinxs nine percent, and Native Americans 39 percent of the population.
That goes against the national data. Indeed, in every region of the country except the Northeast, the 10 percent of rural counties won by Biden in 2020 have a higher average non-white share of the population than Trump-voting rural counties. In the South, rural counties won by Biden were, on average, two-thirds non-white. They were also high on the economic distress spectrum, though, and Robeson does meet this criterion. The Distressed Communities Index (DCI) developed by the nonprofit Economic Innovation Group measures economic well-being at the zip code level with data that ranges from unemployment and poverty to abandoned homes and educational achievement. With 100 signaling the greatest economic distress, Robeson County scored 88.7 with three towns over 95. It is North Carolina’s poorest county, with 70 percent of children living below the poverty line.
What makes Robeson County different from most of the nation’s “majority minority” counties in voting for Trump? It’s not because of its significant Native population. Across Indian Country, counties that overlapped with reservations went blue. In Montana, although the state went for Trump, the Blackfeet Nation, Fort Belknap Tribes, Crow Tribe, and North Cheyenne Tribe voted clearly for Biden. In Wisconsin, voters in those counties overlapping the lands of the Bad River Band, the Menominee Tribe, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans helped tip this swing state to the Democratic presidential candidate. In Arizona, Navajo votes are widely credited with flipping that state to Biden. Even in South Dakota, which went for Trump by 61 percent, Indigenous peoples voted overwhelmingly for Biden, sometimes by as much as 88 percent, as on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge lands.
But Robeson County is different. There, the Lumbee, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi with 55,000 members, have been fighting for federal recognition for more than 130 years. Although recognized by the State of North Carolina in 1885, the national government never followed suit despite the tribe’s many efforts to satisfy the US Department of the Interior’s intricate requirements for federal recognition. A nearly lethal blow to their fight for sovereignty came in 1956 when Congress passed the Lumbee Act, acknowledging the indigenous people of Robeson County as Native Americans but prohibiting them from receiving any benefits or services offered to other tribes. This was during the era of what was ominously called “termination policy,” an effort roughly two decades long to assimilate Native peoples into American life in the 1950s and 1960s by dismantling tribes and their special relationship with the federal government. And why pay to provide critical housing, educational and health services to a large new tribe, estimated to be the nation’s third biggest? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated it would cost $787 million over a four-year period to extend federal benefits to this North Carolina tribe.
In 1988, the Lumbee petition to the US Department of the Interior was rejected, leaving the tribe just two paths: judicially through a federal court decision, and legislatively through a federal law. Since then, legislation has been introduced by both Democrats and Republicans—20 times in the House and 12 times in the Senate. Indeed, a Lumbee recognition bill was thrice approved by the House, as recently as November 16, 2020. But never in the Senate, where it never even made it to the Senate floor.
Candidates for political office have long recognized the advantages of supporting the Lumbees’ bid for federal recognition, and this year was no exception. On October 8, candidate Biden announced that if elected, he would sign a Lumbee recognition bill into law.
“Joe Biden has supported federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe for nearly 30 years, and he knows it’s incredibly important that we reaffirm that commitment in this election,” said Biden for President’s North Carolina State Director. “The Lumbee tribe deserves equal access to health care, COVID-19 relief, and economic opportunity, and full federal recognition is a much-needed step in the right direction.”
Two weeks later, Trump announced his support and followed up three days later with a rousing campaign stop at the Robeson County fairgrounds, promising to fight for the “forgotten men and women” of the Lumbee tribe. No sitting president had ever held a formal event in Robeson County before (although rumor has it that President William Howard Taft made a train whistle-stop here in the 1900s). Thousands attended.
“That was huge, that was very huge,” said Jarrod Lowery, a member of the Lumbee Tribal Council and a Republican activist in Robeson County. Trump’s announcement and visit brought Lumbees to the polls who otherwise would have skipped the election, he said.
Although federal recognition is clearly the Lumbees’ most important political issue, it is not the only issue that persuaded tribal members to vote twice for Trump. Many are church-going and socially conservative, and the Democrats’ pro-choice stance does not sit well. Then there’s the imprint of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement of the 1990s, which shuttered factories and thousands of jobs lost throughout the county. Trump’s promise to renegotiate trade deals resonated with Robeson’s residents.
Finally, Robeson County has long had a reputation for political corruption when the Democrats were in power and faith in the government and its ability to work for the people has been shaken over the decades. In the last five years, three local elections were cancelled and redone due to allegations of vote-buying and other types of fraud. A former sheriff was recently released from federal prison for crimes uncovered during the mid-2000s by an investigation called Operation Tarnished Badge. One in every six sheriff’s office employees was convicted for crimes, including perjury, kidnapping, drug dealing, and armed robbery. In the 1980s, the first Lumbee to run for a higher judicial office was murdered, and two young Native Americans took 17 local newspaper employees’ hostage, protesting unfair law enforcement.
So, why did this majority minority rural county vote twice for Trump? Yes, it’s a deeply religious, socially conservative place that’s hurting economically, and that describes much of the nation’s rural (white) counties who went 90 percent for the President. But the most important issue for Robeson County’s Lumbee is their powerful desire for federal tribal recognition and the redress of a deeply felt historical wrong that has never been fixed by those in power. As Robeson County reminds us, rural places are not a monolith—and local needs and history can be a powerful force.—Debby Warren