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Carson defends Trump’s African American outreach, but experts have doubts

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Fredericksburg, Va., Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Dr. Ben Carson believes Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s revamped campaign message to African American voters will help him overcome the fierce resistance he has seen from the black community, but some experts are skeptical that Trump’s approach will reverberate.

“Over the last few decades, the Democratic Party has been in control of many of our major inner cities, and what has happened to the African Americans who live there? In large part, bad things,” Carson said in an interview with WTVC Tuesday. “So he’s saying, why don’t you try something different?”

Or, as Trump has put it many times in the last week, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Trump supporters have hailed his outreach to the African American community in a series of rallies before mostly white crowds in predominantly white communities. Trump has placed the blame for crime, poverty, and a poor education system in inner cities on President Obama and Democratic leaders and insisted he could do no worse if elected.

At a rally in Akron, Ohio Monday, Trump depicted inner cities as death traps for black Americans.

“It is a disaster the way African-Americans are living… We’ll get rid of the crime,” Trump claimed. “You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now, you walk down the street, you get shot.”

Carson acknowledged this is a hard sell with reliably Democratic communities.

“People simply are creatures of tradition,” he said, but he insisted that if Trump is elected, his policies will empower African Americans to improve their lives and many more would support him for reelection in 2020.

“When people actually see stuff that works, they’ll forget about party affiliation,” Carson said.

Trump’s current support among African Americans is difficult to gauge, with polls varying by several percentage points, but none offer especially reassuring numbers for Republicans.

Four recent polls put Trump at 1 or 2 percent among black voters nationally, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton gets nearly 90 percent. Two new polls out this week are slightly more optimistic, with a Reuters tracking poll placing Trump at 6 percent and an NBC/Survey Monkey tracking poll giving him 8 percent.

Experts who study race and politics say the worst of these polls may underestimate black support for Trump, but probably not by much.

“It’s a little bit hard to judge right now where he’s going to be,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She also pointed to swing state polls where Trump is cratering among black voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania but doing better in North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia.

Rigueur, author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican,” predicted Trump will draw about the same percentage of black support that Republicans generally have for decades, somewhere between about 3 and 11 percent.

2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney won about 6 percent of the black vote against Obama, but the GOP had hoped to score bigger numbers in 2016 when not facing the nation’s first black president.

Trump going into white communities to hold rallies where he bemoans the horrible lives African Americans lead is unlikely to move that needle.

“What it ultimately ends up doing is coming across as insincere because of the messenger… He is lecturing black people to audiences of white people and essentially trashing African Americans,” Rigueur said.

The failure of the Democratic Party to fulfill its promises to the black community is an argument that could resonate if Trump was offering solutions those voters want, but he often is not.

“He displays a staggering ignorance of what the actual problems are,” she said.

On crime and public safety, for instance, he talks of tougher policing and ramping up the police presence. In Chicago, though, excessive force by police is one of the issues creating tension with a Democratic mayor.

“In order to attract support from African Americans, there are a couple of things you have to do,” Rigueur explained. “You have to establish trust…you also have to listen. You have to be willing to hear what African American communities are saying.”

You also need to engage with them directly, she added, something Trump has not done. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that his campaign has ignored or rejected invitations to speak to black conferences, black churches, and black colleges. Surrogates have even claimed it is not safe for Trump to go into those communities, which Rigueur noted is “incredible offensive” to the people living there.

She listed several past actions and statements by Trump that alienated the black community that many feel he has not sufficiently addressed, including allegations of housing discrimination, his calls for the death penalty for the later-exonerated Central Park Five, comments about blacks being lazy, retweeting false crime statistics posted by white supremacists, and leading the birther movement against Obama.

“These are all things that matter to black voters,” Rigueur said. “As long as that sits there, that message that Donald Trump may or may not be sincere about will not penetrate.”

Joseph Lowndes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said Trump’s approach to race resembles his framing of trade, where he took complaints long voiced by some on the left and attempted to appropriate them.

“He draws on long-standing critics within the black community of the Democratic Party,” he said, but Trump’s rhetoric takes the point too far.

The majority of black voters who are not unemployed, not living in poverty, and not being shot at know his generalizations do not match reality. Many are also bothered by his “law and order” language that echoes Richard Nixon and his criticism of protests against police violence.

Trump has said the Black Lives Matter movement divides America, encourages cop killings, and should be investigated by the Department of Justice.

“He, at the very best, is talking out of both sides of his mouth and voters are not stupid,” Lowndes said.

Rather than telling them they have nothing to lose, Trump needs to offer something significant enough to dislodge long-standing party identification, according to Lowndes.

There are conservative black voters who could potentially be drawn to the Republican Party, but even concerted efforts by the GOP over the last 15 years to put more African Americans in party leadership and on ballots have not attracted many of them.

Trump’s critics have accused him of cynically using speeches ostensibly reaching out to black voters to convince white suburbanites that he is not racist, rather than actually seeking black votes. Considering whom he is speaking to and the language he is using, Lowndes sees some evidence of that.

“The likelihood here is that he actually means to be talking to white audiences,” he said.

Republican strategist Paris Dennard, former director of black outreach for President George W. Bush’s White House, disagrees with that assessment.

“Mr. Trump does not need to prove to white voters that he is not a racist, they know he is not,” Dennard said, insisting Trump is very serious about winning black votes.

“Mr. Trump has been meeting privately with black pastors and leaders for several years,” he said. “Even on the campaign trail, he has met with community leaders and has a strong base of support from the National Diversity Coalition, which is comprised of all ethnic backgrounds of people from across the country that proudly support his candidacy.”

He also dismissed criticism of Trump’s choice of venues for recent rallies. While he hopes Trump will accept an invitation to speak to a black audience, he feels the candidate’s message should be communicated to all voters.

“If he never does one ‘black event’ but has policies to make life better for my community and family I will be just fine,” he said. “Actions always speak louder than words.”

According to Dennard, all Democrats and Clinton are offering African Americans is another generation of lost wages, poor education, and high crime.

“You can sugarcoat the realities of the inner city if you want to, ignore it like we have seen by many liberals and the current administration,” he said, “or you can call it out and say you want to do something about it.”

That non-sugarcoated language is driving away the audience Trump is supposedly trying to win over, though, according to Rigueur.

“It is trafficking in stereotypical perceptions of what it means to be black in America,” she said.

Coming from another candidate at another time, the argument that Democrats have taken the black vote for granted and they should give Republicans a chance might work because it has some basis in reality. However, given Trump’s controversial history, his appeals to white nationalism, and his lack of direct engagement with the community, Rigueur sees little chance that he will persuade more African Americans than previous Republican nominees have.

“In a vacuum, it’s absolutely something that could resonate,” she said, “but we’re not in a vacuum.”

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