Rep. John Lewis is the son of sharecroppers. As a child, he wanted to be a preacher; he practiced by delivering fiery sermons to the family’s chickens. But history had other plans for him: lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a seat in Congress representing most of Atlanta. No sane person would accuse such a man of being “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results.”
But that is precisely what Donald Trump said of Lewis. It was not the first time the president-elect raised questions about his own sanity, and I doubt it will be the last.
As I’ve said before, Trump’s compulsion to answer any perceived slight with both barrels blazing is a sign of dangerous insecurity and weakness, not strength. We are about to inaugurate a president with the social maturity of a first-grader.
There is another troubling aspect of this episode, however: Trump took a gratuitous swipe at Lewis’ majority-black congressional district, saying it was “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested).” In a subsequent tweet, he said Lewis “should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”
We’ve heard this sort of thing before from Trump. When he thinks of African Americans, Trump apparently pictures “inner cities” that are godforsaken hellholes of despair. He sees dystopian enclaves beset with record levels of crime – ramshackle places that are “falling apart” in every sense.
This vision is patently wrong, grievously insulting and guaranteed to ensure that the new administration’s support from black America remains minimal. Trump received just 8 percent of the African American vote; if anything, he is driving some of those few supporters away.
In August, Trump made this campaign pitch to an almost all-white audience in Akron, Ohio:
“The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politicians – year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this – crime, all of the problems – to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?”
Ridiculous. Begin with the question of poverty. It is true that the poverty rate for African Americans, at about 27 percent, is almost triple the rate for whites. But that ignores history and context. Since 1971, according to a December 2015 Pew Research Center report, African Americans have improved their income status far more than any other racial group.
Black Americans now have roughly $1 trillion in annual purchasing power. Dotted around the country are African American neighborhoods, lined with McMansions, that are affluent by any standard – including parts of Lewis’ district.
As for education, black attainment has risen steadily in recent decades; nearly a quarter of African American adults have college degrees, compared to slightly more than one-third of white adults. The story in home ownership is similar: gains paralleling those of whites, but starting from a lower baseline and thus not having reached full parity.
And someone really should let Trump know that the rate of violent crime is barely half what it was in the early 1990s. Most big cities are safer, wealthier, more vibrant places than they were 20 or 30 years ago. How can a real estate developer not know that?
To be sure, many big-city public school systems are failing. Poor urban neighborhoods are desperate for jobs, much like the Rust Belt towns that put their trust in Trump. And in terms of crime, Chicago is a tragic outlier worthy of presidential attention; Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s city saw more murders last year than New York and Los Angeles combined.
But the president-elect seems to have no clue that African Americans – like any grouping of 40 million people – are incredibly diverse, economically and culturally. They would be much more diverse politically, too, if Republicans ever bothered to make a serious play for their votes.
Tell the president-elect: There’s more to black America than Ben Carson, Don King, Omarosa and a bunch of huddled masses.
Eugene Robinson can be contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.