Trump’s Inconvenient Racial Truth
With the race for the presidency entering its last days, Donald J. Trump last Wednesday once again made his pitch to black America: a new deal aimed just at them. “I will be your greatest champion,” Trump said at a campaign rally in the battleground state of North Carolina. “I will never ever take the African-American community for granted. Never, ever.”
The hyperbolic remarks elicited the same collective eye roll among black Americans and white progressives that they have since Trump began regularly including black Americans in his platform in August. It was then, following days of unrest in Milwaukee after the police killed a black man there, that Trump flew to Wisconsin to give a speech on race. He headed not to the heavily black city where the embers of outrage still smoldered but instead, as his critics noted with glee, took the stage at the county fairgrounds of a bleached-out, deeply conservative Milwaukee suburb in order to address the problems of the “inner city.”
There was, of course, the usual and expected “law and order” and pro-police rhetoric that elicited hoots and cheers from the crowd. But then Trump, as he is known to do, added an unexpected twist.
“Our job is to make life more comfortable for the African-American parent who wants their kids to be able to safely walk the streets,’’ Trump said. ‘‘Or the senior citizen waiting for a bus, or the young child walking home from school. For every one violent protester, there are a hundred of moms and dads and kids on the same city block who just want to be able to sleep safely at night.”
He pointed out the high unemployment rate among black men in Milwaukee, the number of households run by single mothers who were living in poverty and the low high-school-graduation rates. “I am asking for the vote of every African-American citizen struggling in our country today who wants a different and much better future,” Trump told the crowd, which at times stood eerily silent. “It is time for our society to address some honest and very, very difficult truths. The Democratic Party has failed and betrayed the African-American community.” Trump went on to say that Hillary Clinton “panders and talks down to communities of color,” “seeing them only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.” It was time, Trump proclaimed, that Democrats compete for black votes.
There was something utterly surreal about that moment. Trump had spent months whipping up his supporters, focusing on other so-called minority groups whom he labeled rapists and terrorists, and now he was telling the nearly all-white crowd that if they voted for him, he’d use his power to help black residents in the inner cities by bringing jobs back and improving their wages. Trump’s message did not seem to be directed at his audience (recent research by professors at the universities of Chicago and Minnesota showed that white Trump supporters are less likely to support government programs if they think they will help black people). As one resident of West Bend, the approximately 1-percent-black town where the rally was held, put it to The Times: “They think we owe them something. I don’t want to seem racist or anything, but the black heritage has been raised in a certain way that there’s no incentive to get out and work, because all of a sudden you have five kids and there are no dads around.” Nor was it directed to black people, who of all the nonwhite voters are the least poachable by the G.O.P. The message was presumably targeted at white moderates, the independents and disillusioned Bernie Sanders legions, whom Trump was most likely hoping to reassure that he was not racist despite his years of fueling the birther conspiracy theory and months of spewing bigotry about Muslims and Mexicans.
But in his speeches, Trump was speaking more directly about the particular struggles of working-class black Americans and describing how the government should help them more than any presidential candidate in years. Let that uncomfortable truth sink in.
Whatever his motives, Trump was talking about the black working class in a way that few national politicians do. By now it’s no surprise that when they talk about black Americans as at all, Republican politicians typically conflate blackness with poverty, and then quickly blame black people for their struggles. In March 2014, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that the problems in the “inner cities” Trump was talking about were rooted not in the loss of manufacturing jobs and the flight of businesses and the tax base to government-subsidized suburbs, but on an absence of a “culture of work.”
Liberals quickly lambasted Ryan for those remarks. But far too often, the way Democrats talk to, and about, black Americans is indistinguishable from the way their Republican counterparts do. And President Obama has been as guilty as anyone. A year before Ryan made his remarks, Obama delivered a commencement address at the historically black Morehouse College, where he warned the graduates at the prestigious all-male school that they shouldn’t use racism as an excuse, and to be good fathers.
Politicians regularly deploy this type of shaming when referring to, or even when addressing, black Americans. But it’s hard to fathom a politician, Democrat or Republican, standing before a predominately white crowd in a sagging old coal town, and blaming the community’s economic woes on poor parenting or lack of work ethic or a victim mentality. Those Americans, white Americans, are worthy of government help. Their problems are not of their own making, but systemic, institutional, out of their control. They are never blamed for their lot in life. They have had jobs snatched away by bad federal policy, their opportunities stolen by inept politicians.
It would have been easy, expected, for Trump in his speeches to recycle the same old personal-responsibility narrative for black voters. But Trump didn’t call for black people to stop lazing around and use a little more elbow grease on those bootstraps. He was pushing for more government — Republican-led government — to help black folks prosper, a racially specific new deal that included investing in schools, high-wage jobs and black entrepreneurs. And in doing so, Trump, at least rhetorically, did something the Democrats and Republicans have largely failed to do — he took black citizens into the ranks of “hardworking Americans” worthy of the government’s hand.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the man who called for the execution of the since-exonerated Central Park Five (and who still insists on their guilt) and who seeks nationwide implementation of the stop-and-frisk program ruled unconstitutional in New York City, and who warns that voting in heavily black cities is rigged, is a racial progressive who will enact policies that will help black communities. Nor am I saying black voters should buy what Trump is selling. (And they aren’t: A poll released last week by The New York Times Upshot/Siena College of likely voters in Pennsylvania found that “no black respondent from Philadelphia supported Mr. Trump in the survey.”)
What I am saying is that when Trump claims Democratic governance has failed black people, when he asks “the blacks” what they have to lose, he is asking a poorly stated version of a question that many black Americans have long asked themselves. What dividends, exactly, has their decades-long loyalty to the Democratic ticket paid them? By brushing Trump’s criticism off as merely cynical or clueless rantings, we are missing an opportunity to have a real discussion of the failures of progressivism and Democratic leadership when it comes to black Americans.
Trump is not wrong when he says that black Americans have suffered in a particular way in blue cities and blue states. (Of course, they suffer in red states as well.) The most segregated cities have long been clustered above the Mason-Dixon line and are Democratically run. Some of the most segregated schools in the country educate students in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee. Efforts to integrate schools in these cities have met resistance from white progressives. Democrats did as much to usher in the era of mass incarceration as anyone else. And in these cities, with their gaping income inequality, black communities shoulder a terrible burden of gun violence, high unemployment, substandard schools and poverty.
Though black Americans these days consistently vote Democratic at higher margins than any other racial group, this wasn’t always the case. Before 1948, black voters were fairly evenly split between Republican and Democrats. Then President Harry S. Truman pushed a civil rights platform, and a majority of black voters swung Democratic, though a significant percentage still identified as Republican. That changed in the 1960s, when black voters moved en masse to the Democratic Party after Lyndon B. Johnson showed he was willing to lose the South in order to pass the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Southern Democrats abandoned the party to become Republicans, and Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 on a Southern strategy of stalling forward movement on civil rights. And the party of Lincoln came to be considered anathema to black progress.
In the intervening years, modern Democrats have been far more likely to support social programs that help the poor, who are disproportionately black, and to support civil rights policies. But since Johnson left office, Democrats have done little to address the systemic issues — housing and school segregation — that keep so many black Americans in economic distress and that make true equality elusive. At the federal level, despite the fact that the National Fair Housing Alliance estimates that black Americans experiences millions of incidents of housing discrimination every year, Democrats, like Republicans, have avoided strong enforcement of federal fair-housing laws that would allow black families to move to opportunity-rich areas. Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to pursue school-integration policies that would ensure black children gain access to the good schools white kids attend. In the 1970s and ’80s, Trump battled housing-discrimination lawsuits, while Senator Clinton was noticeably quiet when Westchester County, N.Y., a county that twice voted decidedly for Obama, fought a court order to integrate its whitest towns, including Chappaqua, the 2-percent-black town she calls home.
Instead of seeking aggressive racial-equality initiatives, Democrats too often have opted for a sort of trickle-down liberalism. If we work to strengthen unions, that will trickle down to you. If we work to strengthen health care, that will trickle down to you. If we work to make all schools better, that will trickle down to you. After decades of Democratic loyalty, too many black Americans are still awaiting that trickle.
While Republicans rarely make any effort to court black voters, Democrats do reach out to them. But Democratic politicians have also shown again and again that they will sacrifice the needs of their most loyal constituents in order to win larger political points. I will never forget how in February 2013, President Obama flew to Chicago to give a speech that touched on gun violence. He spoke of the random shooting of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who had performed at his inaugural events. “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood,” Obama told the predominantly black audience. But two months earlier, when he gave a speech about the Newtown shooting, he’d said no such thing about fathers and marriage, even though that violent act was carried out by a young white man from a broken home. Instead, he emphasized Congress’s inability to pass gun control. The message: Black killings are the black community’s fault; white killings are a failure of government.
Trump, in turning the usual rhetoric on its head — claiming that black people are living in inner-city hells and should therefore spurn the Democratic Party — has forced progressives, both black and white, into the uncomfortable position of arguing that things aren’t nearly as bad for black America as Trump would have us believe. In the weeks before Trump’s alleged sexual improprieties overtook everything else, writers dashed off thousands of words arguing that the “inner cities” are improving (gentrification!) and that poverty is not just in the inner city but in suburban America too, and that there are lots of middle-class black folks doing just fine, thank you. Writers pointed out that Trump was wrong when he said nearly half of inner-city black children are poor when it’s actually just one-third. If Trump had raised these statistics and said black people needed to simply work harder, these same people would be arguing that candidates needed to be talking about what they were going to do address the systemic causes of devastatingly high poverty and unemployment rates that black Americans experience. And they would have been right.
Most black Americans live neither in poverty nor in the inner city. And even those of us who do live in inner cities aren’t living in hell. But the inequality that black Americans experience is stark. Black children are more segregated from white children now than at any point since the early ’70s. United States census data shows that a black middle-class family is more likely to live in a poor neighborhood than a poor white family. The wealth gap between white and black families is the widest it has been in nearly three decades. This is true in cities and states run by Republicans. This is true in cities and states run by Democrats.
Regardless of how you feel about Trump, on this one thing he is right: The Democratic Party has taken black Americans for granted. The problem is — and this is where Trump’s rhetoric is just that, rhetoric — black people aren’t loyal Democrats because they don’t know any better. They are making an informed decision. As Theodore R. Johnson, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and an expert on black voting behavior, points out in his research, black Americans are an electoral monolith out of necessity. Black people care about the environment and the economy and international issues, and they generally fall across the spectrum on a range of issues, just like all other human beings. But while the Democratic Party might be accused of upholding the racial status quo, the Republican Party has a long track record of working to restrict the remedies available to increase housing and school integration and equal opportunities in employment and college admissions. And most critical, Republicans have passed laws that have made the hallmark of full citizenship — the right to vote — more difficult for black Americans. Since first securing the right to vote, black Americans have had to be single-issue voters — and that single issue is basic citizenship rights. Maintaining these rights will always and forever transcend any other issue. And so black Americans can never jump ship to a party they understand as trying to erode the hard-fought rights black citizens have died to secure.
But it is also true that black Americans have not always been single-party voters, and they don’t have to remain so. If Democrats want to keep black voters, they need to work for those votes, because one day Republicans might wise up. Until then, when Trump asks what the hell do black Americans have to lose? Well, a hell of a lot.