Donald Trump made a pitch for black votes this week, in his own inimitable fashion. Speaking in a virtually all-white suburb of Detroit, he suggested that African-American communities are “suffering from Democratic control.”
“What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump. What do you have to lose?” he said to absent African-Americans. “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.”
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This appeal for votes will fall on deaf ears. Most African-Americans don’t live in poverty, even though too many do. Most have jobs, even though too few do. More people in poverty are white, young and female. Trump has little relationship with the black community and isn’t making any effort to create one. Most African-Americans consider him a bigot. (Four out of five African-Americans view him unfavorably, and slightly more think he’s biased against minorities and women.)
President Obama won over nine of 10 African-American votes in 2012 when he ran for re-election. The black community is obviously proud of the dignity with which he has carried himself in office and the values which his family displayed. Trump earned our contempt for continuing to question Obama’s birth certificate, trying to slur him as literally un-American. Not surprisingly, Trump polls in the low single digits — 2 or 3 percent — among African-Americans. He’s running fourth behind the Libertarian and the Green candidates as well as behind Clinton.
The African-American vote hasn’t always been Democratic. With Democrats anchored in the Jim Crow South, many African-Americans voted Republican before 1960. Dr. Martin Luther King’s father was a Republican voter. But Democrats reached out to African-Americans, and Lyndon Johnson championed the end of segregation, the right to vote and more. Democrats didn’t inherit black votes, they earned them. And recent efforts by Republican judges to disembowel the Voting Rights Act and by Republican state legislators and governors to limit the right to vote in ways that disproportionately impact African-Americans are teaching a new generation the same lesson.
African-Americans were a major part of the coalition that Hillary Clinton put together to win the Democratic nomination, and we will be a major part of the coalition she’s putting together to win the presidency.
But Trump does have a point. African-Americans have suffered significantly from the stacked deck that characterizes our economy. We were the biggest victims of what the FBI called an “epidemic of fraud” in the housing bubble. We lost more ground than whites in the Great Recession. We suffer higher unemployment, a racially biased criminal justice system and inadequate public schools. Recent reports showing that poor African-Americans in Milwaukee and in other cities are living in more isolated neighborhoods, with more segregated schools, worse household incomes and greater incidence of concentrated poverty than that witnessed in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963 near the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement are clearly alarming.
As the first black president, Obama enjoyed a deep wellspring of support among African-Americans. We had his back. Clinton will not enjoy that unstinting loyalty. African-Americans will be making demands — as Black Lives Matter has already done — and looking for results. If disappointed, they may never get back to voting for a Republican Party that seems intent on locking them out if not up, but they may end up staying home in larger and larger numbers.
We need a targeted program to rebuild our inner cities. We need investment in jobs, housing and schools, as well as massive criminal justice reform. Hillary Clinton, periodically, talks about the Rep. James Clyburn’s 10-20-30 plan. This calls for earmarking 10 percent of government spending for the 474 communities that have had 20 percent of the population in poverty for more than 30 years. As Clyburn notes, this isn’t a blacks-only program. These communities are both majority Democrat and majority Republican; they are urban and they are rural. They include Appalachian whites, Alaskan Native Americans, urban Latinos and more. 10-20-30 won’t solve the problems of Chicago’s South Side or Milwaukee’s north side, but it will demonstrate a clear concern for those struggling the most. That, along with reforming our criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration that has destroyed so many lives, would begin to revive hope. Without that, Clinton will find that our cities are tinderboxes, ready to blow.
Democrats are going to have to work to earn black votes again, not simply inherit them.
Follow Jesse Jackson on Twitter: Follow @revjjackson