Since June 2015, when Donald Trump entered the presidential race, there has been a list of long unseen, unheard or imagined things that have, for the electorate, become real.
But on Tuesday evening in North Carolina, Trump’s prevailing sense that oh so much is wrong with America and that he alone can fix it — all of it — may have detached him from reality.
Speaking to a crowd gathered at a Trump rally in Kenansville, N.C., he said this:
“We’re going to rebuild our inner cities because our African American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever, ever, ever.”
Ever. Got that? Well, those who have cleared the grand bar of eighth-grade history should not.
Political views and goals aside, the facts here simply do not line up with Trump’s assessment. Trump not only stood on a stage in an area of the country where Jim Crow policies were the law of the land, but in a town named after James Kenan. Kenan, a sheriff and legislator, was also scion of a major slave-owning family that held other humans in bondage on a plantation named Liberty Hall.
Someone please show Trump the definition of the word irony. Then provide him with some books on 19th- and 20th-century U.S. history, stat.
Objectively, Jim Crow was quite bad. Slavery was worse. The inability to defend one’s self or demand justice; vote or even register to vote; or make full use of public facilities, transit systems, schools and other public resources for which black tax dollars have always helped to pay, was quite bad. It was sometimes deadly. The wholesale theft of labor, one’s children and one’s humanity was worse. It was often deadly, too.
Trump has one thing right here. We live in far-from-perfect times today, as the police shooting in Oklahoma and subsequent misinformation that followed readily reminds us all. There are indeed poor black Americans, a minority of the total group, but one that also matters. And a look at every measure of socioeconomic well-being continues to indicate that racial disparities persist in housing, health care, wealth, education and so on. But missing from Trump’s “all the blacks are living lives fit for scenes from ‘The Bronx Is Burning’ ” talk is the following reality.
A full 76 percent of black Americans do not live in poverty. That’s the vast majority. Nearly 57 percent of the black population is employed (that same figure is 60.1 percent for white Americans, lest any stereotypes come to mind here). Black Americans shared in the declines in poverty and modest increase in wages announced by the Census Bureau last week, although disparities between groups remain. Health insurance coverage disparities for children have disappeared, in large part because of the Affordable Care Act, and they continue to narrow for adults. Republican lawmakers in states nationwide continue to restrict voting rights and early voting options, but voting is not a life-imperiling activity. And of course, there is that whole freedom and natural-born citizen thing.
Challenges remain. But there simply is no objective measure in which black life in America today is worse than it has ever been in the past. And it’s that fact that exposes Trump’s ever-more-dystopian descriptions of black life in America for exactly what it is. Trump doesn’t aim to speak to the realities of black life or the ongoing challenges in the headlines today which disproportionately imperil black lives. In other words, he does not speak to black voters about their actual reality, and therefore has no need to advance Trump solutions to these actual problems and, in doing so, actually compete for black votes.
As has been said and written many times, this is the way that a man who knows little of black life speaks to white voters who know little of black life and are therefore inclined to find Trump’s hyperbole believable, to hear Trump’s descriptions as evidence of compassion or cognizance of the way that race functions in American life.
For white voters in need of some assurance that Trump is not racist, this may be sufficient. For white voters in need of no such assurance, Trump’s comments also, quite conveniently, manage to affirm an array of racial stereotypes.
And while Trump’s acknowledgment that race continues to shape experience in the United States in myriad ways would, on its face, seem like a departure from Republican orthodoxy, in truth it is anything but. Trump rarely ventures into the realm of why racial socioeconomic disparities exist or what policy solutions might be necessary to eliminate them. He only affirms that they exist. He makes vague associations between them and Democrats or, more specifically, Hillary Clinton and President Obama. And in so doing, he leaves space for those voters already in his camp and those contemplating a place in it to fill in those conspicuous blanks.
This is where we are. It is plenty alarming. But it is not worse than ever, ever before.