CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s so refreshing to know that Donald Trump cares about me. I was in that Charlotte crowd when he made one of his first outreach efforts to African-Americans. Because the supportive Trump fans gathered in the portioned-off section of the convention center included few actual African-Americans, he could very well have been talking just to me when he said Democrats and Hillary Clinton have totally taken African-American votes for granted. “What do you have to lose by trying something new?” he asked.
That appearance set the tone and backdrop for the Republican presidential nominee’s practice of talking about African-Americans to predominantly white audiences. Though I was joined by members of a local black church that has endorsed Trump, and we were all carefully watched by a diverse group of unsmiling security personnel whose glances I tried to avoid so I would not meet the same fate as an Indian-American Trump supporter tossed out of a rally when he was profiled as a potential troublemaker.
While Bryant Phillips, evangelist at that church, the Antioch Road to Glory International Ministries, said Trump “gave me my first job as an 18-year-old high school dropout in his casino,” African-Americans without so personal a connection might hear more of a mixed message from the man who has said he has a “great relationship with the blacks.”
In Michigan, Trump said of African-Americans: “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. …” He has described urban areas as hell holes, worse than war zones. And when senseless violence touched the sometimes troubled streets, such as Friday's shooting death in Chicago of Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, Trump’s pride in his own predictive powers preceded his condolences to the family.
Yet to come from Trump are any discussions of underlying policies that have helped create challenges as well as detailed solutions that would advance communities. That the clumsiness of this latest pivot lacked nuance, accuracy and a sense of history — the Republican Party’s and his own — was not so surprising. So much of what he is saying still basically means that African-Americans don't know what's good for them.
Does Trump want to scare black citizens into voting for him or merely convince white voters he isn’t racist while confirming all the worst stereotypes about black people some of his supporters may have? Good sense says the latter.
It has already been pointed out that most African-Americans, and Hispanics, whites and every other ethnic group, do not live in poverty. (In fact, the poverty number for African-Americans is just over a quarter — too high but hardly a majority.)
It only gets more complicated when Trump’s racial past is taken into account. Racially segregated neighborhoods, far from being accidental, became set in stone because of the U.S. government’s actions, and by discriminatory policies, such as those the Trump family organization was found guilty of, as detailed in The New York Times. Trump, who worked for his father’s Trump Management, has dismissed as baseless the lawsuits brought by the Justice Department in the 1970s after fair housing laws were passed. But the records and agreed-to settlements say otherwise.
While not as blatant as the now-unenforceable restrictive covenants that stained the deeds of the homes in my Charlotte neighborhood, the coded “C” for “colored” on applications for apartments at Trump properties in New York sent a definite message that the African-Americans Trump is courting get loud and clear. Those policies laid the groundwork for the residential segregation that still haunts America.
Trump also seldom mixes his outreach to minorities with his call for supporters to volunteer to search for “cheating” in urban polling places. At his Charlotte stop, he failed to mention North Carolina’s strict voting law, passed by a Republican-dominated legislature and struck down by a federal court for specifically targeting African-American voters. But he has aligned himself with the state’s GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican leaders who have supported the laws and are fighting to keep them even after court action.
Donald Trump could always show up in front of majority-minority audiences to turn his monologue into the dialogue with all Americans that any would-be president needs to have. But his campaign was a no-show at meetings of the NAACP, National Urban League and the diverse group of journalists gathered at the recent National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Washington, D.C., where Hillary Clinton gave a short speech and faced questioning. I was waiting for him since, in the past, Republicans such as George W. Bush have made the effort.
Surrogates such as reality show veteran Omarosa Manigault and vanquished opponent Ben Carson are not enough. The opening act of sisters "Diamond and Silk" don’t help. And folks such as Rudolph Giuliani and Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon, with their own racial baggage, actively hurt.
Saying “Hillary is a bigot” is not an answer or even a convincing argument. Sure, it’s great when anyone pays attention. But it might be nice if Trump gave any indication that he understands the work, hopes and dreams of African-Americans, the resilience and agency of black Americans such as my illiterate longshoreman grandfather or my father, a virtual orphan, or mother, who returned to college after raising five educated children, and became a teacher. That all happened in Baltimore, one of those cities often included in the litany of hellscapes, in circumstances limited by crushing racism.
African-Americans are listening to Mr. Trump, but what they are not hearing is understanding or solutions. It’s no wonder his poll numbers with black voters are low to nonexistent. The last thing most are looking for is a flawed savior, carrying little but promises.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.