Business & Lobbying

The Memo: Charlottesville anniversary puts Trump and race under microscope

President Trump's attitude to race is under the microscope at the first anniversary of fatal racist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump's reference to "some very fine people on both sides" after white supremacists converged on the Virginia city and a counterprotestor, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed, sparked outrage and prompted even many Republicans to distance themselves from him.

The furor did nothing to water down Trump's willingness to step into sensitive, racially charged areas, however, a fact underlined by the president's tweets in the past week.

On Friday morning, Trump lashed out at NFL players who knelt during the national anthem, complaining that they want "to show their 'outrage' at something that most of them are unable to define."

In fact, NFL players who take a knee have been clear that they are doing so to protest police violence toward African-Americans and racial injustice more generally.

A week before, Trump tweeted criticism of NBA star LeBron James and CNN anchor Don Lemon, casting aspersions on the intelligence of the two men, both of whom are black.

Trump has also repeatedly hit Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) as having a "low IQ," remarks that many observers saw as having a racial subtext.

"He is saying what his base wants to hear," said Johnetta Elzie, a prominent civil rights activist who came to the fore after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. 

"They believe black people are dumb or should 'shut up and dribble.' The things that he said about LeBron, him saying that protest is un-American when I feel like protest is the most American thing possible - it is incredible to me that people are buying into this," Elzie said.

Trump and his allies frequently argue his critics unfairly racialize his comments. They say that the president has done much to help African-Americans by presiding over a booming economy.

The president himself has drawn attention to historic lows in black unemployment. 

"The African American unemployment rate fell to 6.8%, the lowest rate in 45 years. I am so happy about this News!," he tweeted in January. 

The black unemployment rate has fallen further since then. For May, it hit 5.9 percent, the first time it has fallen below 6 percent since records began.

To Trump's critics, regardless of race, such numbers mean little in the context of the president's words.

Cornel West, the prominent black intellectual and a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard, told The Hill that Trump was prone to "vicious racist attacks" even as he was also "an equal opportunity gangster" who was as willing to attack white female critics in misogynistic terms as he was to attack black opponents.

West took the long view in terms of Trump's effect on race relations, however.

"We have been here before," he said. "This is as American as it comes. There has always been the worst of America, there has always been the best of America, and we swing back and forth. 

"Donald Trump is as American as cherry pie. Martin Luther King is as American as cherry pie," West continued. "The question is which America will win. Right now, the Martin Luther King wing is losing - but we will bounce back."

In defending the president, Trump's allies draw attention beyond the economy to less high-profile topics: the administration's forgiveness of some loans to historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs; his selection of Ben Carson as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and, more recently, his enthusiastic endorsement of John James, an African-American veteran and businessman who won the GOP Senate primary in Michigan on Tuesday.

"Look at his actions," Stephen Bannon, the president's former chief strategist, said in an interview with The Hill last week. "We said from Day One, economic nationalism is not about your race, it's not about your ethnicity, it's not about your gender, it's not about your sexual preference. It's all about you being a citizen of this country - and you're going to get a better deal."

Bannon added, "I'll say it again: Martin Luther King, who was an economic nationalist ... would be very proud of what Donald Trump has done in his economic policies."

Darrell Scott, a black pastor based in the Cleveland area and a co-founder of the pro-Trump National Diversity Coalition, recently said during a White House meeting that Trump was set to become "the most pro-black president I've seen in my lifetime."

Scott's comments received fierce criticism on social media, however, and are also given short shrift by liberal activists.

Trump's "crowing about lower black unemployment and taking credit for it is just political posturing," author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson told The Hill. "The recovery began under President Obama, and economists have repeatedly noted that wage levels have fallen, the jobs are mainly low-end retail and service, and the rich have gotten even more fabulously rich. Worse still, black unemployment is still double that of whites."

Others draw attention to policies that seem likely to hurt black Americans: the administration has decided to abandon Obama-era policies on affirmative action in college admissions, for example.

Karine Jean-Pierre, a national spokesperson and senior advisor for liberal group MoveOn.org, drew attention to how Trump cast aspersions on President Obama's birthplace in 2011.

Many years before that, she noted, he called in a full-page newspaper advertisement for the return of the death penalty in the case of the "Central Park Five" - five juveniles, all nonwhite, who were later found to have been wrongly convicted in relation to the 1989 rape of a white female jogger.

Referring to white racial resentment, Jean-Pierre said, "Donald Trump saw an opening. He saw where the country was going and he decided he was going to step into it."

She also predicted that Democrats were likely to see increased turnout from nonwhite voters in November's midterm elections.

Trump's performance with black voters in 2016 was slightly better than that of Republican nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 - though they were running against Obama, the nation's first black president.

In 2016, Trump won 8 percent of votes cast by African-Americans, compared to the 89 percent cast for Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls. There was also a slight dip in black turnout compared to the Obama years.

The electoral ramifications of all the controversies that surround Trump is unclear. A new poll released this week, commissioned by the NAACP and Latino Decisions, found that 79 percent of African-Americans believe Trump is exacerbating racial divisions. 

But the same poll also gave him an approval rating of 21 percent among black voters - a finding that far outstrips his 2016 election performance, and one that was touted by media outlets sympathetic to Trump.

For now, memories of Charlottesville are about to be sharpened once again.

Sunday will see a gathering of far-right groups in Washington, only yards from the White House. Counterprotests are also planned. 

Trump's response will be closely watched.

Bannon insisted that Trump "has had no racist rhetoric" and that media assertions that his words last year showed complicity with neo-Nazis were "outrageous."

From the other end of the spectrum, the view is very different.

"If you are not white, straight and male in this country, you are under attack, under siege by this presidency," said Jean-Pierre. "It's not hyperbole. It's proven almost every day."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.

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