In the imagination of Donald Trump, black communities are scary, bleak places. They are worse than “war zones in countries that we’re fighting.” Speaking to black voters, Trump says that “crime is through the roof. Through the roof. People can’t walk down the street without getting shot.”
Sometimes, he asks a rhetorical question: "You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?" On Tuesday, he said black communities were in “absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before,” which is quite a diagnosis in a country where black people were once treated as chattel.
Trump presents this as an attempt to persuade black and Latino voters to choose him when they step into the ballot box in November. Since Trump rarely speaks to black audiences, some political observers suspect that Trump’s newfound concern for people of color—after he ran a primary campaign promising to expel millions of undocumented immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the country, and denigrating the first black president as a terrorist-loving foreigner—may actually be aimed at persuading white voters that he isn’t racist. Others, like Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, have noted that whatever his intentions Trump’s characterization of communities where people of color live are similar to the fevered dreams of white supremacists.
There’s another way to look at Trump’s statements, though, and that’s to place them in a long line of rationalizations for discriminatory policy wrapped in the language of concern for its targets.
Like much of what comes out of Trump’s mouth, his “outreach” to black voters is full of lies and exaggerations. As my colleague Andrew McGill writes, that includes homicides among black Americans are at historic lows, more black students are graduating from high school, and unemployment among black Americans is dropping. That’s not to say that black Americans no longer suffer disproportionately from poverty, substandard schools, and crime. But black communities are not the urban hellscapes portrayed in Trump speeches.
His speeches do not characterize white communities in the same way. On the contrary, he consistently tells white voters that their problems are the result of a “rigged system” and the machinations of corrupt elites. He tells them “I will fight for you,” He reassures them that he “has very special place in my heart for those who make a living as tradesmen, craftsmen and construction workers,” he tells them how he feels “more comfortable around blue collar workers than Wall Street executives.” He does not tell them they are violent, stupid and jobless. He doesn’t do this because he actually wants them to vote for him.
Trump has made a rhetorical commitment to pluralism, promising: “When I talk about making America great again, I'm talking about making it great again for everyone.” Trump’s policies, though, including mass deportation at gunpoint, stop and frisk, racial profiling, and a ban on Muslims entering the country, are commitments to use the vast power of the federal government to engage in discrimination against people of color and religious minorities.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s outreach has not moved the needle among black voters. But neither is Trump’s outreach mere reassurance to white voters that he is not prejudiced against people of color. It is something far more insidious, an incessant reiteration of the worst stereotypes about black people. Trump has taken racist beliefs about black Americans––the idea that blacks are violent, uneducated, unemployed criminals––and repackaged them as expressions of concern about the problems of crime, poverty, and education.
In this way, Trump reminds many of the white voters who comprise his base that he shares their perceptions about who people of color are––immigrants and blacks are criminal, Muslims are terrorists––while deflecting accusations of racism by framing those generalizations as promises to improve their lives. He is reminding his supporters that they are better than Those People, while showing them how to express their prejudices as a kind of affection.
Trump is hardly the first person to do package racism as concern for the well-being of people of color––it is a rhetorical technique that predates the abolition of slavery.
In his 1837 defense of slavery before the U.S. Senate, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, famously said that “never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
In 1967, Virginia’s Assistant Attorney General R. D. McIlwaine III based his defense of the state’s ban on interracial marriage on the welfare of mixed children, arguing that “interracial marriages bequeath to the progeny of those marriages more psychological problems than parents have a right to bequeath to them.”
John W. Davis, the attorney who defended school segregation, told the Supreme Court in 1953 that South Carolina was “convinced that the happiness, the progress and the welfare” of school children was “best promoted in segregated schools.”
“Here is equal education, not promised, not prophesied, but present,” Davis argued. “Shall it be thrown away on some fancied question of racial prestige?”
When political figures call for treating religious and ethnic minorities differently from white people, the angry, frothing racism of cinematic villains is rarely on display. Instead, they frequently present unequal treatment as an arrangement in the best interest of those who would be discriminated against. That was true before the Civil War, it was true at the height of Jim Crow segregation––and it remains true today.