Can Donald Trump answer for dad's racial history?

Story highlights

  • Paul Waldman: Donald Trump says racist-sounding things, but claims he's no racist
  • Researcher says Woody Guthrie writings condemned racist practices of Fred Trump, Donald Trump's father
  • Waldman: Son's not condemned for sins of father, but it's fair to ask about a candidate's attitude on race, with regard to family history

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine, and a blogger for The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Donald Trump, he would have you know, is no racist.

Not only that, "I am the least racist person you have ever met," as he told CNN's Don Lemon, which is a pretty high compliment to himself. Nevertheless, it seems that hardly a week goes by in this campaign without Trump doing or saying something to make observers say, "Oh yeah, that's pretty racist."
Paul Waldman
Some of them are planned, like his accusation that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, or his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Others appear impulsive, like his retweeting missives from neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
But they add up to a picture of someone who, whatever might lie within the depths of his soul, is more than happy to activate and exploit racist feelings among the voters he wants to appeal to. It's no accident that a white nationalist group is currently robocalling Iowa voters to encourage them to vote for Trump.
And we have just learned of a fascinating story in the history of race in America that brings a deeper perspective to Trump's current persona. Will Kaufman, a British academic who has written extensively about legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, was doing research in the Guthrie archives when he came across a notebook in which Guthrie condemned the racist practices of his landlord. Kaufman described what he found in an article in The Conversation.
It was a New York apartment Guthrie rented in 1950, in a development called Beach Haven. He was so outraged that he wrote verses about the landlord, including one to the tune of "I Ain't Got No Home," one of his signature songs.
The landlord was one Fred Trump, none other than Donald Trump's father, the man who taught the presidential candidate the real estate business, set him up on his own with what Trump recently described as "a small loan of a million dollars," and raised him to be what he is today.
"You are a king," Fred would tell young Donald, as Michael D'Antonio relates in his recent biography, "Never Enough." And also: "Be a killer."
It's some small defense of Fred Trump to say that though he excluded black people from his buildings, it wasn't his innovation; it was part of a comprehensive system of discrimination. The elder Trump built Beach Haven at the behest of the federal government, as part of a program to establish housing that would go in part to World War II veterans.
Though there were accusations of corruption in the program (at one point Trump was hauled before a Senate committee to explain his billing practices), few at the time questioned how the federal government set out to systematically keep black people out of the buildings it was funding.
As Richard Rothstein wrote last year for the Economic Policy Institute, "African Americans were prevented from moving to white neighborhoods by explicit policy of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which barred suburban subdivision developers from qualifying for federally subsidized construction loans unless the developers committed to exclude African Americans from the community.
"The FHA also barred African Americans themselves from obtaining bank mortgages for house purchases even in suburban subdivisions which were privately financed without federal construction loan guarantees."
Those federal policies are gone today, and the "redlining" they produced is now illegal, but their legacy lives on,in the dramatically low rates of wealth African-Americans have been able to amass through home ownership.
But what does this have to do with Donald Trump?
While Trump might rather show you his solid gold toilets than talk about what he learned about race from his father, the fact is that his real estate empire was built on the foundation Fred Trump laid.
Of course, no politician should be held responsible for the sins of his father. But at the very least, Donald Trump should be asked what he thought of housing segregation at the time and how it helps shape his perspective today, particularly since he was such an enthusiastic student of Fred Trump's business.
White politicians who grew up in the South during segregation are often asked to account for the feelings they had and the actions they took when they were younger and they were witnesses to such a cruel system of oppression.
And while few condemn them for not standing up against Jim Crow when doing so carried great risk, at a minimum we expect them to have developed some perspective on it in the time since. We want to know how their youth shaped their current beliefs about equality, justice, and the way government at all levels can liberate people or persecute them.
This campaign has already taught us a lot about Donald Trump's feelings on race, none of it encouraging. Some people think it's all an act, nothing more than opportunistic exploitation of prevailing sentiments that Trump would cast off as soon as he faced a general election. Maybe. But maybe his comfort with the politics of discrimination has deeper roots.