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Trump’s attacks on Fani Willis failed to discredit her

My research explores why targeting Black officials, both personally and professionally, helps mobilize Black voters.

- March 21, 2024

On Mar. 15, Fulton County, Georgia Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee ruled that the “allegations and evidence” concerning Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the top deputy prosecutor she hired in the Georgia election interference case, “… were legally insufficient to support a finding of an actual conflict of interest.” The judge insisted, however, that “the appearance of impropriety remained and must be handled” by either Willis or Wade withdrawing from the case. Wade resigned later that day. 

This attempt to discredit Willis might not be over, however. On Mar. 20, McAfee said that former president Donald Trump and his co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case could put the matter before an appeals court

The case has gained much attention as an administrative side quest by the Trump team to have Willis disqualified from the pending 2020 election interference case, where prosecutors charged Trump with unlawfully attempting to reverse his election loss in the state of Georgia. But Trump’s legal attack on Willis may have earned her support from Black voters who dismiss this as an effort to embarrass and discredit a Black (woman) politician. 

In my forthcoming book, Marked Men: Black Politicians and the Racialization of Scandal (NYU Press, March 2024), I detail how Black Americans view allegations of political misdeeds by Black elected officials with suspicion towards the U.S. criminal legal system. Using surveys and experiments, I show that Black Americans are likely to believe these officials are being racially targeted, especially when accused of breaking the law. My findings suggest Black Americans discount negative judgments when the attack on a Black politician makes them suspicious of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The racialization of scandal 

Racialized suspicion and the protective posture it triggers are a reaction to what law professor Terry Smith called Whitelash, or the “backlash by White racists against Black civil rights advances.” Among these gains were voting rights and the subsequent ascendance of Black elected officials. In 1898, the Charlotte Observer ran an article warning against this so-called Negro rule, lamenting that “good white men were not made to be ruled by … incompetent” politicians of the wrong class or race. 

A contributor to another newspaper in 1890, The Caucasian, believed “[i]t should be emphatically recorded in the mind of every [white] citizen that these negro judges of election constitute part of a jury who sits in judgement on the liberties and rights of the white voters in every county in which they are appointed, that “their appointment as judges enables them to ‘dominate’ and dictate the action of white voters.” President Andrew Johnson, moreover, argued before Congress that Black freedmen had “shown less capacity for government than any other race of people.”

Trump’s aggressive response to his legal and political woes in recent months follows this well-worn strategy: Accuse Black political leaders of incompetence and corruption. His allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election singled out cities in which there was strong Black political power – Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit, for example. And Trump has now accused three out of four prosecutors (all three of whom are Black) in the cases against him of being racist, setting the stage to delegitimize any unfavorable outcome. 

The attacks are personal

But “[t]he most common tactic used to ruin careers” of Black elected officials, wrote former Congressman William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), “was to undertake a series of probes into their political and personal lives.”

In seeking to disqualify D.A. Willis, for instance, Trump and his co-defendants sought to turn a private, consensual romantic relationship into an issue of misconduct and maladministration. Defendants alleged Willis improperly benefited from the case because Wade, a private attorney who was compensated with public money owed to him for his work with the D.A.’s office, later used those funds to pay for vacations he and Willis took together. 

However, the court found “…that the evidence did not establish the district attorney’s receipt of material financial benefit as a result of her decision to hire and engage in a romantic relationship with Wade.” Still, the courtroom drama unfolded in the media and was, according to one Washington Post headline, “… must-watch TV that no one needed to see.” But media spectacle has also long played an additional role in reporting and printing what Clay called “highly suspicious-inducing, inflammatory allegations” against Black politicians like Willis. 

Black suspicion, Black protection: How I did my study 

Black Americans often question the motivations behind these assaults on Black politicians. They express concern that such actions are intended to undermine, embarrass, and discredit Black political leaders. I determined this by randomly assigning Black and white Americans (n=715) to one of four experimental conditions in which a politician – who was either described as Black or white – was investigated for either an inappropriate relationship with a staffer or for financial misconduct. Respondents then answered a series of questions related to the incident and the beleaguered official. I asked whether they believed the elected official was unfairly targeted for investigation; the extent to which the official should be blamed and punished; and their judgments about the official’s reputation and electoral support. I find evidence that Black Americans are especially sensitive to the specter of racial harassment, but only in the context of alleged financial impropriety – i.e., lawbreaking.

We see evidence of this suspicion in how Black and white journalists, Black voters, especially Black professional women – and even rapper Plies – have lamented the irony in the Willis case. They believe Willis, whom they suspect experienced outsized scrutiny for an admittedly poor personnel decision, faced a double standard compared to Trump, who faces 91 indictments in four separate criminal cases, and has been held liable for sexual abuse, defamation, and fraud.

In 2020, Willis easily won the Democratic primary runoff for Fulton County district attorney, with 72% of the vote and won the general election with over 400,000 votes. Her fiery reminder to opposing counsel from the stand that she was not on trial, “no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” may prove important to her future political fate in Fulton County. 

With Republicans in the state threatening additional legal and ethics challenges against the embattled district attorney, suspicious Black voters may be more likely to rally around Willis in 2024. In Marked Men, I illustrate this by looking at the relationship between Blacks’ suspicion and their political judgments related to the scandal. The evidence shows that Black Americans who suspect that the U.S. justice system is biased against Black officials were less harsh in their appraisal of the official’s character (i.e., trustworthiness), and more likely to indicate they would vote for the beleaguered politician in the future.

While more challenges lie in wait for Willis, evidence from my work suggests continued efforts by Trump and his co-defendants to embarrass and discredit her may have the unintended effect of mobilizing Black voters in the next election.