It wasn’t until the Associated Press asked him in an interview to address bias against African Americans that Donald Trump even acknowledged that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were black.
That’s no mistake.
Throughout the days since the tragic murders of Castile and Sterling, and the brutal slayings of heroic police officers in Dallas, Trump’s statements have been carefully crafted to avoid any inference that black Americans face any kind of special circumstance when it comes to their safety. That includes avoiding any mention that they were black, at all.
Let’s look at his first written statement put out by his campaign (emphasis mine):
“The senseless, tragic deaths of two people in Louisiana and Minnesota reminds us how much more needs to be done….Racial tensions have gotten worse, not better. This isn’t the American Dream we all want for our children.”
Two “people” died in Minnesota and Louisiana, not black men. “Racial tensions” have gotten worse, but no mention of for whom.
Could just as easily be for white people, as black. In fact, a lot of white people would tell you that they’re the ones being discriminated against.
In a later video statement, Trump says the deaths of Castile and Sterling show that there is “much more work we have to do to make every American feel that their safety is protected. Too many Americans are living in terrible poverty and violence.”
He goes on to say that “too many headlines flash across our screens about rising crime and rising death tolls in our cities.”
Again, it isn’t African Americans who have any special circumstance because of their skin color. “Every American” feels the same kind of lack of safety. By adding in headlines about rising crime, Trump equates white fear of crime, with black fears of being targeted only because of their skin.
This continued in what was billed as a speech on veterans, but ended up being a mish-mosh of reaction to all the recent news…
“Not only am I the law and order candidate, but I am also the candidate of compassion. But you can’t have true compassion without providing safety for the citizens of the United States. Every kid in America should be able to securely walk the streets in their own neighborhood. Everyone will be protected equally and treated justly, without prejudice.”
Now, to white peoples’ ears, this sounds awfully sensitive – the same way saying “All Lives Matter” seemed like a reasonable response to “Black Lives Matter.”
But what is Trump actually saying? That white people have real fears too, and those fears of crime (presumably committed by black people) are the same as whatever it is that black people fear.
When he says that “everyone will be protected equally and treated justly,” it implies that white people haven’t been – and that there will be no special effort to make sure we do all we can to pay special attention to the inherent dangers black people face because of the color of their skin.
Still don’t buy it? Let’s compare all of the above to Newt Gingrich’s reaction to the recent deaths.
“It is more dangerous to be black in America. It’s both more dangerous because of the crime, which is the Chicago story… But it is more dangerous in that [you are] substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you and where you could easily get killed. And I think sometimes, for whites, it’s difficult to appreciate how real that is. It’s an everyday danger.”
See the difference? Gingrich makes a real effort to differentiate the black experience from the white experience – not conflate the two, or blur the lines. It’s a statement, I gather, that isn’t very well received by the Trump base.
That’s why Trump did a whole lotta verbal gymnastics to avoid any talk about the color of Sterling and Castile. To pay lip service, without offending his base.
But when pressed by the Associated Press to address the racial aspect of Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths, Trump immediately pivoted:
Trump framed that issue in largely economic terms, blaming the mood of the nation’s black community on high unemployment and low wages.
“Jobs can solve so many problems,” he said. “And we’re going to open our country up and we’re going to be a huge jobs producer again instead of having terrible jobs.
Philando Castile had a job. He had a good, honest job. Henry Louis Gates had a real job – as a freaking Harvard professor – when he was arrested for trying to get into his own house.
Blaming economic circumstances, instead of or racial bias, is the ultimate sleight of hand. To white mainstream folks, it isn’t offensive. To white reporters, it sounds like a “softening of Trump’s tone.”
But make no mistake. The reason he said it – the reason he’s said everything the way he has said it – is because it is a signal to his base that he will neither acknowledge systemic racism, nor promise to take any action to combat it.
It also gives a nod and wink to the white line of thought that black Americans “bring it on themselves” because they’re “lazy” and won’t/can’t hold down a job.
If nothing else, I can promise you that is the message they received.
And, just in case they didn’t, Trump added this:
Trump also had harsh words for the Black Lives Matters movement, which has organized some of the protests. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump adviser, labeled the group “inherently racist” over the weekend in an interview with CBS News.
“When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist,” Giuliani said. “Black lives matter. White lives matter. Asian lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. That’s anti-American and it’s racist.”
Asked whether he agreed with Giuliani’s assessment, Trump said the group’s name is “divisive.”
“A lot of people agree with that. A lot of people feel that it is inherently racist. And it’s a very divisive term,” he said. “Because all lives matter. It’s a very, very divisive term.”
Trump’s tone has softened as much as the old iron fist in a velvet glove.