President Trump’s bizarre, rambling news conference hit an unrivaled low at the mention of an issue that’s continually defined the president down: race.
April Ryan, a black reporter with American Urban Radio Networks in Baltimore, asked Trump if he plans to meet and work with the Congressional Black Caucus — a perfectly legitimate question from a political reporter. His answer was not so legitimate.
Immediately, Trump treated Ryan as if she were personally aligned with the Congressional Black Caucus — even as she insisted that she’s “just a reporter.”
Here’s the exchange:
RYAN: When you say the inner cities, are you going to include the CBC, Mr. President, in your conversations with your urban agenda, your inner-city agenda?
TRUMP: Am I going to include who?
RYAN: Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus?
TRUMP: Well, I would. I tell you what: Do you want to set up the meeting? Do you want to set up the meeting?
RYAN: No, no, no. I’m just a reporter.
TRUMP: Are they friends of yours? Set up the meeting.
RYAN: I know some of them, but I’m sure they’re watching right now —
TRUMP: Let’s go. Set up a meeting. I would love to meet with the Black Caucus. I think it’s great, the Congressional Black Caucus. I think it’s great.
The moment is just one example of a critique Trump has faced repeatedly: He genuinely seems to view black people as a monolithic “other” — a group of people who work and behave in exactly similar ways. Not only does this seem to define an entire group of people down to a lowest common denominator, but it’s also simply dehumanizing to treat individuals as only part of a bigger group.
In the press conference, Trump was generally combative with reporters, patronizing them with bizarre comments about nuclear weapons (“You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things.”) and calling reports about his ties to Russia “fake news.”
But the exchange with April Ryan was different. It fits a pattern he’s demonstrated multiple times since he launched his campaign for president. For example, he repeatedly referred to black people with a “the” before he mentioned them — saying “the African Americans” and “the blacks.” As linguist Lynne Murphy of the University of Sussex explained at Quartz, there is a purpose, albeit one Trump may not be totally aware of, to this:
“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering”: treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group. The Nazis did it when they talked about die Juden (“the Jews”). Homophobes do it when they talk about “the gays.” …
I doubt it’s an accident that Trump talks about ethnic groups in the same way that we talk about foreign governments and armies. If that “the” treats ethnic groups as some monolithic cabal, that might ring true with the conspiracy-theory mind-set that characterizes some of his core audience — the audience that Trump has been priming to see and make trouble at polling places “in certain areas.”
Trump also seems convinced that all black people live in inner cities, which, despite living in an inner city himself, he has constantly described as hellholes. In his pitch to black voters during the campaign, for instance, Trump said, “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”
And he argued, “Our inner cities are a disaster. 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.”
What Trump is doing here is transcribing coded language — a dog whistle — in a literal manner. Time and time again, politicians have used “urban” and “inner city” as code for black people — and particularly when addressing black crime. Trump has simply mixed all of this code into a very literal interpretation, treating black people as a monolithic group living in cities riddled by crime and devoid of jobs and good schools.
While it is true that black Americans do disproportionately face economic hardship and higher crime as a result of centuries of systemic racism, pointing out such inequality is very different from saying that literally all black people face the exact same problems today.
Only by lumping all black people into this kind of monolithic group can one make sense of how Trump seems to think it’s okay to ask any random black person — even a reporter whose profession fundamentally demands some impartiality — to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus.
Never mind that black people of course live in rural areas, suburbs, exurbs, and, yes, cities, just like everyone else, and they are obviously a diverse group of people with different life experiences and beliefs. In the world of Trump, black Americans can be lumped into a few descriptors — “inner city,” “urban” — and maybe even all work for the Congressional Black Caucus.