How Trump could start correcting his ugly history on race

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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Trump and supporters seem to think he can walk away from his ugly racial history without answering for it
  • Bailey: If Trump wants us to believe his remarks on Charlottesville attack, there are four things he can do to start

Issac Bailey is an interim member of The Charlotte Observer editorial board and the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Donald Trump's supporters are convinced that no matter what the President says on the thorny issue of race, it will never be enough for his critics.

Issac Bailey
"If Donald Trump (had) suddenly jumped on Marine One ... down to Charlottesville, walked into the jail where the young man was being held, shot him between the eyes, I guarantee you people said he didn't use the right caliber bullet," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said this weekend on Fox and Friends.
Trump supporters, like Huckabee, are right: only Trump's actions will matter because the President has so devalued his own words.
    There is little Trump can say to build credibility on the issue of race, one of the most vexing issues we face.
    He dug himself too deep a hole by spending five years elevating the bigoted birtherism conspiracy, kicking off his presidential campaign painting Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, downplaying the Boston attack on a homeless Hispanic man, carried out by a couple of white guys in Trump's name, and declaring that a federal judge was unfit because of that judge's ethnic heritage. There is more, but it is wearying to recount.
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    Trump supporters -- and Trump himself -- seem to believe he could just walk away from his ugly racial history and never have to answer for it. He can't.
    His short speech Monday about Charlottesville -- delivered only after an odd preamble in which he took credit for the same positive economic indicators he'd demeaned as fake news when Barack Obama was President -- did nothing to move the needle.
    A man who apparently had to be browbeaten by two days of scorching denunciations from both political friend and foe into condemning the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists has lost all benefit of the doubt. Indeed, Gallup clocked his approval rating at a new low of 34% on Monday.
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    But as long as he's President, he has the power to change the narrative. And it would take doing only a few things most other leaders would find easy to accomplish.
    1. Sit down with a journalist of color for a one-on-one interview dealing solely with the topic of race and ethnicity. He would have to answer why he spent so many years touting birtherism -- something he's never explained -- and examine his role in, among other things, the public railroading in 1989 of five young black and Latino young men (the so-called Central Park Five) who spent years in prison for a rape they didn't commit. Trump famously took out full page ads in four New York City newspapers two weeks after the attack, long before any trial, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, and, years later, after DNA evidence exonerated the men, refused to believe they were innocent. Trump brought an enormous amount of racial baggage like this into the White House and has never accounted for any of it. Until he does, he will maintain a massive deficit on the issue of race.
    2. Revamp his new "voter fraud commission" to include independent voting experts who have an established track record of cherishing the American voting system. Take recommendations from the Brennan Center, at NYU's law school, which has done comprehensive work on the issue (and has found effective, purposeful in-person voter fraud to be nearly non-existent). Fears about restrictive voting laws with echoes from the Jim Crow era have grown among people of color. If Trump is serious about the integrity of our democracy, instead of forming a commission to "restore confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections" -- a concern cooked up by people like the man Trump selected to co-chair the commission, Kris Kobach, who has a record of trying to curb voting rights -- the President would be thinking of ways to make it easier to vote in America.
    3. Dismantle that ill-advised commission tracking immigrant crime -- his new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office. It unfairly and unnecessarily singles out a group of people whose crime rate is, according to several studies, lower than that of people born in the United States. (If he really wanted to drive the point home, he'd replace it with a commission designed to highlight crimes committed by white supremacists.)
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    4. Make his attorney general prove that reigniting of the war on drugs is warranted. Jeff Sessions has committed to reversing Obama-era efforts to ease federal sentences for some nonviolent drug violations, returning to harsher punishments and mandatory minimum sentences. Explain: How will it make the country safer, while not destroying already-vulnerable families the way the drug war has done over the past few decades?
    None of these actions would violate true conservative principles, given that true conservatives aren't in favor of racial injustice, racial violence, making it hard for Americans to vote, or unfairly painting a group as criminals. And it would validate the times Trump has spoken, albeit sparingly, about wanting racial healing.
    I don't expect Trump to do any of these things; he's neither humble nor introspective enough to show such emotional maturity and growth in office. But if he did, I'd be willing to listen to him in a way I simply can't now.