Lynne Patton, the vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation, wasn’t the first person of color to speak at Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention. But she was the first to defend, to an arena full of Trump supporters, the idea that black lives matter.
Patton’s speech was written as an act of outreach from Team Trump to the African-American community: "As a minority," she said, "I personally pledge to you that Donald Trump knows that your life matters, he knows that my life matters." She continued by promising that Trump knows "LGBTQ lives matter, and he knows that veterans’ lives matter, and he knows that blue! lives! matter!" — knowing that Trump supporters would cheer the last two more loudly than the rest.
But parts of Patton’s speech were undoubtedly for those same supporters — who, like many Trump supporters, have been eager to dismiss accusations of racism with one hand while expressing distrust of black Americans with the other.
On Monday night, Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee led the convention attendees in a cheer because officers in Baltimore had been acquitted in the killing of Freddie Gray; Patton mourned "the senseless deaths of young black men in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and far too many places around this country."
Clarke called the Black Lives Matter movement "anarchy" and blamed it for the deaths of police officers; Patton urged attendees to "stop viewing these incidents as attacks on the LGBTQ community or attacks on the black community or even attacks on law enforcement. They are attacks on America, attacks on our values, attacks on the very foundation of civil society."
Clarke, like Patton, is black. That’s exactly why the contrast between the two of them was so remarkable. Clarke spoke from a reality in which race is a red herring, a card that people only play if they’re trying to divide Americans up; Patton spoke from one in which, as she said, "Historically, black lives have mattered less. My life mattered less. Whether we like it or not, there are people out there who still believe this to be true."
It was a remarkable thing to see. And it was more remarkable still that Patton wasn’t booed — even by the feistiest audience of the week.
Donald Trump’s campaign has made some noises about outreach to black Americans — after all, Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t attack them the way it attacks Latinos and Muslim Americans.
But black Americans are not having it, at all. Trump got a stunning 0 percent of black voters in a pair of recent state polls. Lynne Patton’s speech is the Trump campaign’s overture to show it’s at least aware of a better way to go.