Editor’s Note: Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University. She is the author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
On January 8, President Donald Trump sent out a tweet touting record and near-record low unemployment levels among African-Americans and Latinos/as. Later that day, he signed an executive order making the Martin Luther King Historic Site in Atlanta a national park. Around midday on January 11, he convened a working meeting of governors to talk about prison reform.
While some would dismiss these actions as small or symbolic — black and Latino unemployment, which still outpaces white unemployment, has been steadily declining for years, and one can argue that the King site announcement or the prison reform meeting were merely symbolic — these are not the kinds of actions that should galvanize criticism or would be used as evidence the President is racist.
Then came word of the “s—thole” comment in the late afternoon of January 11. President Trump is reported to have decried immigration from African, Latin American and Caribbean countries and to have openly wondered why the United States did not admit more Norwegians, who were presumed to be desirable and hardworking.
While some supporters have tried to downplay the incident or outright deny that it happened, many others immediately and rightfully condemned the statement (whether it was “s—thole” or “s—house”) and its sentiment as racist.
While it is important to point out the evidence that suggests that the President’s comments fit a larger pattern of bigotry, it is also important to consider this statement in the context of Trump’s general approach to politics in the first year of his presidency.
As a candidate, Trump attempted to appeal to blacks by charging that their economic situation had not improved under Democratic administrations and by promising to improve blacks’ overall economic standing. And as president, he has often been described as “transactional,” interested more in his legislative win-to-loss ratio and in viewing policy successes as payoffs to key constituent groups.
By this logic, if key metrics in minority communities improve — for instance, if unemployment decreases, or if wages increase as a result of the new tax law — then minorities will credit Trump with their good fortune and increase their backing of him. This idea is clearly reflected in a tweet President Trump issued on January 16, where he links low black unemployment to the false claim that his approval rating has doubled among blacks in the past year.
Suffice to say, his strategy for minority outreach failed in 2016. Trump only won 7% of the black vote, and while Trump boasted of his strong showing among Latinos in 2016, his 29% vote share pales in comparison to the 44% who voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
Trump’s partisan problem with these traditionally Democratic groups was compounded by his own racially and religiously charged rhetoric: launching his campaign by slurring Mexicans, attacking a Muslim Gold Star family originally from Pakistan, and characterizing black communities as so crime-ridden that you could get shot walking down the street.
And despite the positive unemployment numbers and the elevated status of the King Historical Site (which could easily be framed as a favor to Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr. and a prominent Trump booster), blacks and Latinos are still unimpressed with this president.
According to Gallup’s weekly job approval ratings, Trump’s approval rating among blacks has never been higher than 16% and has hovered around 25% for Latinos. Perhaps it is because he never apologized for slurring Mexicans at the start of his campaign. Perhaps it is because of his attacks on NFL players protesting police brutality. Maybe it is because of his defense of “some very fine people” among the white nationalists who terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia. Or maybe it is because of his decision to abruptly rescind DACA.
While we await new data to confirm the impact of the “s–thole” comments on President Trump’s approval rating, it is safe to predict that this comment will not help improve President Trump’s standing among minorities, a few symbolic gestures and a brighter economic outlook notwithstanding.
This should provide a valuable lesson to President Trump. As evidenced by his tweets on January 8 and January 16, he expects to receive credit when minorities do well. He fails to realize, though, that minorities and others are judging the totality of his record.
Yes, lower minority unemployment is great, but if the administration does not address the underlying factors that help perpetuate unemployment inequality, then the problem has not abated. And while gestures like elevating the status of the King Historical Site or issuing a proclamation for Martin Luther King Day are nice, it does not compensate for the years of intemperate racial comments that Trump made as a private citizen and has continued to make as commander in chief. In short, minorities had legitimate reasons to not trust President Trump, and his actions in the last year have only served to validate those misgivings.
This is a sober reminder of the limits of transactional politics. Throwing a few improvements a constituency’s way is not sufficient to gain their support or trust. President Trump has failed to acknowledge the ways that his divisive rhetoric has not only inflamed conflict but also made it difficult for him to forge the vital partnerships he needs to post the meaningful policy wins he covets, and to win the approval and adulation he so desperately craves.
Admittedly, it is going to be hard for President Trump to win the trust of constituents who have been deeply hurt by his decades of bigoted pronouncements, alleged racist actions, and seemingly callous attitude toward minority concerns. Despite that difficulty, President Trump has a moral obligation to reach out to those skeptical Americans. He has to initiate reconciliation, starting with a public and genuinely contrite acknowledgment of how damaging his posture has been and ending with intentional, informed policy proposals that attack the structural causes of inequality without resorting to stereotypes, dog whistling and other forms of scapegoating.