Last month, Donald Trump canceled his planned Martin Luther King Jr. Day visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The unspecified “scheduling issues” that his transition team said were responsible for the scrapped plans were unfortunate. The president-elect really could have benefited from an educational experience about the lives of black people in America — namely, that they exist outside of the “inner city” and often have lives that aren’t defined by criminal activity.
It’s a concept Trump has appeared to struggle with since the early days of his campaign — and he hasn’t improved since he’s moved into the White House.
That was reaffirmed this week. Speaking at an event to commemorate African-American History Month on Wednesday, he touted the 8 percent of black voters who supported him, according to exit polls. "If you remember,” he said, “I wasn’t going to do well with the African-American community, and after they heard me speaking and talking about the inner city and lots of other things, we ended up getting — and I won’t go into details — but we ended up getting substantially more than other candidates who had run in the past years." (By the way, Republican nominee Mitt Romney earned 6 percent of the black vote in 2012, and 4 percent went for Sen. John McCain in 2008, each versus Barack Obama, the first black president.)
The now-predictable “inner city” reference didn’t get as much attention as the more shocking observation that Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer made comments suggesting they might believe that 19th-century abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass was still alive. But it was one more data point in a troubling pattern.
Recall that before Trump’s visit to the museum was canceled, he lashed out on Twitter in response to civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis referring to him as an “illegitimate” president. In that three-tweet attack, Trump characterized Lewis’s district as being “in horrible shape,” “falling apart,” and “crime infested.” He added that Lewis (who, prior to his career in Congress, had his skull fractured by law enforcement officers as he marched to demand voting rights for black people in 1965) “should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”
Trump’s argument “bears little relation to the facts,” Vox’s Dara Lind pointed out, explaining, “Atlanta is the heart of the black middle class in America. And while the city has a relatively high violent crime rate, it is almost certainly not as dangerous as Donald Trump (who routinely claims that America’s murder rate is at a 50-year high, and claims that black Americans ‘can’t walk out the door without getting shot’) thinks it is.” And why does he insist should Lewis focus specifically on the “burning” inner cities versus any other social issue in America? Unclear. Well, it’s a little clearer if you understand the way Trump thinks.
The president’s disregarded of demographic realities to force a link between black people and inner cities isn’t new, and it doesn’t appear to be stopping. Whether this habit is a racist dog whistle to his white supporters or a reflection of true ignorance is up for debate, but it’s definitely a pattern.
Trump cannot or will not discuss black people except in connection with “inner cities” and crime
Trump’s frequent use of “inner city” in his Twitter rant against Lewis was odd in part because the term, in the way he uses it, is really outdated. As Lind wrote:
Time and again, he conflates black residents with the “inner city,” and characterizes inner cities as a lawless, crumbling dump — not to mention a place where all votes are fraudulently cast. It’s a characterization that resembles actual black America (or increasingly nonblack urban America) less than it resembles 1980s dystopias like Escape From New York and Demolition Man.
But he’s decided to pick this theme and run with it — and it started long before his comments this weekend. Just a few examples:
At the third presidential debate: "Our inner cities are a disaster," Trump said. "You get shot walking to the store. They have no education, they have no jobs. I will do more for African Americans and Latinos than [Hillary Clinton] can ever do in 10 lifetimes. All she has done is talk to the African Americans and to the Latinos."
At the second presidential debate: In response to an audience question about whether the candidates could be “a devoted president to all the people in the United States,” his answer included, "I would be a president for all of the people. African Americans, the inner cities. Devastating what's happening to our inner cities."
At the first presidential debate: All the candidates were asked how they would "heal [America’s racial] divide." Trump implied that black people are universally trapped in — you guessed it — "the inner city,” with all of its associated criminal activity:
We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.
We have to know what we're doing. Right now, our police, in many cases, are afraid to do anything. We have to protect our inner cities because African-American communities are being decimated by crime.
Reacting to these statements in October 2016, Vox’s Victoria Massie identified what was already a pattern in Trump’s thinking, explained that "inner city" has very little to do with where black people actually live in the United States today. It’s become code for “cultural failings” versus actual geographic locations, and ignores the gentrification that is actually making urban areas less black. Relatedly, German Lopez has reported on the data proving that America is nothing close to the crime-ridden hellscape Trump repeatedly insists it is.
More recently, Trump has revealed that he doesn’t just link black people to inner cities as an insult when he’s angrily tweeting, or as a dramatic flourish when he’s making policy promises or trying to impress others. (Now, whom, exactly, he’s trying to impress is up for debate — Lind has observed that Trump is really speaking to white Americans when makes promises draped in insulting inaccuracies to black people.) He’s also seemingly used this thinking to decide on a political appointee.
“Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities,” Trump said in December to explain his choice to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”
Though HUD’s work is not focused specifically on inner cities, Trump seems to think it is. So, given his history, it’s not surprising that he decided a neurosurgeon with no expertise in housing policy — but who happens to be black — was the perfect person to lead it.
The pattern reached an almost comical level when Trump announced that another black man with no relevant experience, talk show and game show host Steve Harvey (whose primary area of “expertise,” to use the term generously, is regressive relationship advice) would be working with his administration to bring “positive change to” — once again — “the inner cities.”
His recent Twitter threats to call “the feds” to Chicago to address gun violence there touch on all the same themes, according to Khadijah Costley White, an assistant professor in the department of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who researches race, gender, and politics in media.
“Media representations of black people often rely on stereotypes that paint black people as pathologically flawed: criminal, violent, neglectful, and subhuman. That is, the media often depicts the black community as the cause of their own problems, which are the persistent and substantive disparities in housing, education, employment, incarceration, health, and more,” she said. “By focusing on individual behavior and choices in describing problems in black neighborhoods, media messages both justify the condition of black people and distract from the larger systemic issues affecting their communities.”
In her view, Trump’s comments actually serve to justify police violence against black people by painting them as a constant threat and insist that black residents are the problem of Chicago, rather than understanding the structural inequality in Chicago as the key problem for black residents.
Maybe, during Black History Month, Trump will reschedule that visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. January’s cancellation means a missed opportunity for a crash course in the black experience in the United States — from current demographic realities to the fact that Frederick Douglass is no longer with us. It’s clearer every day that that was an education he really couldn’t afford to miss.