As part of The Guardian’s coverage of the 2016 election, reporter Paul Lewis traveled to Mahoning County in the northeastern part of Ohio to figure out why Donald Trump was appealing to working-class white voters in this traditionally Democratic area. He landed an interview with the county’s Trump campaign chair, Kathy Miller, a former trustee of the town of Boardman who volunteers her time to get Trump elected and who will serve as an elector if Trump wins.
Her interview with Lewis probably won’t be as helpful to her candidate as she might have hoped. She told Lewis that she doesn’t think “there was any racism until Obama got elected” and that black Americans “have an advantage” over whites because they “got into schools without the same grades as white kids.” If black Americans haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, she said, “it’s [their] own fault.”
The interview starts at about the 4:45 mark.
Lewis visited a county Republican picnic and noted that there wasn’t much diversity present. He asked Miller why there don’t seem to be any black people who are part of the Trump movement.
“That’s a smaller percentage of our population,” Miller replied. “And I don’t think that many — I’m sure there were some, but I don’t know they were voting. I mean, I’m talking about voters.”
Mahoning County is 16 percent black, a higher density of black voters than the United States on the whole. The city of Youngstown — a perpetual symbol of the plight of the Rust Belt — is nearly half black; Boardman, where Miller served in office, is only 6 percent black. In 2012, black voters were 15 percent of the turnout in Ohio.
Lewis pressed her on the subject. “What’s your response to people who say that, there is a just-below-the-surface level of racism in America and Donald Trump’s candidacy has allowed that to slip above the surface?” he asked.
“I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected. We never had problems like this,” Miller replied. “You know, I’m in the real estate industry. There’s none.”
There was some racism in America prior to Obama. We won’t insult your intelligence by pointing out specific examples.
Save one. Miller’s comment is stunning in part because the real estate industry has seen some of the most overt displays of racism in modern American history. Historically, the process of “redlining” marked off communities that were seen as undesirable thanks to their high populations of nonwhite residents. Those delineations have had long-term effects — and the subtle restriction of certain people to certain types of neighborhoods persists. As recently as 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that real estate agents didn’t show black customers as many properties as they did white ones.
Miller continued. “Now with the people with the guns and shootin’ up neighborhoods and not being responsible citizens, that’s a big change and I think that’s the philosophy that Obama has perpetuated on America,” she said. “I think that’s all his responsibility.”
This mirrors Trump’s campaign rhetoric. In reality, the era of the most shootings and most violence in America was in the early 1990s, after a decade of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
“If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years? It’s your own fault,” Miller said. Why? “I think you had a real advantage over it because you had all of the advantages going to college. You had all of the advantages because they got into schools without the same grades as white kids.”
It is not the case that black Americans have “all the advantages” thanks to being born black, nor is it the case that black Americans across the board are given educational opportunities at the expense of whites. The process of affirmative action, which was favored by 58 percent of respondents in Gallup polling in June 2015, is meant to counteract the systemic disadvantages black Americans (and others) face — problems like entrenched racism in housing, for example, or discrimination in employment or lack of investment in schools. Problems that have existed for decades.
“I think that when we look at the last 50 years, where are we, and why? We have three generations of all still having unwed babies, kids that don’t go through high school,” Miller said. “I mean, when do they take responsibility for how they live? I think it’s due time, and I think that’s good that Mr. Trump is pointing that out.”
Fifty years ago, 1966, was two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, legislation aimed at removing the most obvious examples of Jim Crow segregation and bias. It’s safe to say that there has been some improvement in living conditions for African-Americans in the intervening period.
As Lewis walked away from the interview, Miller confronted him, telling him to “get off that topic” of racism because it is “of no consequence.”
“What, racism?” Lewis asks.
“No, because if people have jobs and go to work and do what they’re supposed to do, there is no racism,” Miller replied. She added that if black people are offended by that comment, it’s only “because they’re not going to work.”
Lewis points out that some people might find that offensive.
“I don’t care,” Miller replied. “It’s the truth.”
It isn’t. In attempting to defend Trump’s candidacy, his Mahoning County chairperson instead very effectively demonstrated why many Americans remain skeptical of it. Her embrace of obviously inaccurate and overtly racist arguments — and her waving critique away as being politically correct — are things we’ve seen before from Trump backers, and are almost certainly one of the reasons that support for her candidate from blacks is as low as it has been.
And, contrary to her understanding, many black Americans do vote.