Erika D. Smith

Trump fails this lesson on Black History Month

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting Wednesday on Black History Month in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. With him, from left, are Omarosa Manigault, Ben Carson and Lynne Patton.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting Wednesday on Black History Month in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. With him, from left, are Omarosa Manigault, Ben Carson and Lynne Patton. The Associated Press

On Wednesday, the first day of Black History Month, President Donald Trump walked into the Roosevelt Room of the White House and surveyed the faces of the black people seated all around him.

They smiled. Trump nodded. Then he opened his mouth.

“During this month, we honor the tremendous history of the African Americans throughout our country – throughout the world, if you really think about it, right? And their story is one of unimaginable sacrifice, hard work and faith in America.”

He added: “They’re incredible people.”

Why every black person in that room didn’t get up and walk out after that is beyond me. If not at that moment, then when Trump went on a riff about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, talking about him as if he were alive.

“Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

Trump makes it really hard to be a minority and a supporter. His approach to race relations is consistently clumsy and tone-deaf at best, and malicious at worst. Say what you will about his politics, but as a young real estate tycoon, he fought accusations of discriminating against black tenants and, as president, has continued to make tone-deaf generalizations about black people “living in hell.”

It’s why I have a hard time shaking the feelings of shame, confusion and disgust when I see black people – my people – laughing and nodding at a table with Trump.

But there the president was Wednesday, surrounded by a smattering of smiling people of color for what the White House billed as an “African-American History Month listening session.”

There was Ben Carson, the brilliant neurosurgeon who is the Trump administration’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There was Omarosa Manigault, the former “Apprentice” cast member and current director of communications for the Office of the Public Liaison.

However, there was no sign of Steve Harvey, Kanye West or Don King wearing his rhinestone jean jacket.

Trump, for his part, promised to “honor the tremendous history of the African Americans throughout our country.” (Yes, that’s “the African Americans.” We always get a “the.”)

Then he got back on his soapbox about law and order, and crime in the inner cities. “We need safer communities, and we’re going to do that with law enforcement,” Trump said. “We’re going to make it safe. We’re going to make it much better than it is right now. Right now it’s terrible.”

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Black Lives Matter shut down a freeway onramp at the peak of the afternoon commute. More than 100 people showed up to protest an infuriating decision by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office to exonerate two police officers in the fatal shooting of a black homeless man, Joseph Mann.

The notion that most black Americans put any stock in what Trump says is ridiculous. The president would be smart to go beyond his carefully culled group of minority supporters, get out in the cities he swears he can fix, and hold a “listening session” there.

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