Talk about dog-whistle politics. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech in Wisconsin Tuesday night that was virtually a textbook example of how to play race politics to win white conservative votes: Feign sympathy for black people while vowing to keep them in their place and shut down their talk of systems of institutional racism.
It started with the setting of the speech – the Washington County Fairgrounds in West Bend, Wis., a community 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee that is 95 percent white and 1 percent African American. It’s known for being the community where right-wingers in 1999 wanted to ban from the public libraries books supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and wanted to include in a public book-burning a critically acclaimed book called “Baby Be-Bop,” a novel featuring a gay teenager.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote that “the setting for the speech … appeared to be at odds with Trump’s pitch for African-American votes.” That would be true, but this was not a pitch for African-American voters. The speech was a greatest-hits collection of all of the myths white conservatives use to convince themselves they are not racist while being in active complicity with institutional racism.
The hyper focus on “crime and lawlessness”? Check. Condemn “false facts and narratives” from black activists that “foment further unrest”? Check. Call for an end to “the war on police”? Double-check. Blame “Democrats” for racial inequities and poverty, and the obligatory statement that the “Democratic Party has taken the votes of African-Americans for granted”? Duh! Blame high rates of joblessness in African-American communities on “illegal immigrants taking jobs directly from low-income Americans”? Of course, because it is essential to the conservative project to drive a wedge between African Americans and Latinos. Attack the public “education bureaucracy” and promote charter schools, which in many areas has led to more segregated and unequal education? An “A” grade for including this key conservative mantra.
Trump’s speech did touch briefly on the shameful racial disparities that exist in Milwaukee, but without an honest exploration of how those disparities came to be and what it would take to correct them.
Earlier Tuesday, The Rev. Jesse Jackson posted a column in the Chicago Sun-Times prompted by the riots that followed a police shooting of Sylville Smith, 23, an African-American man who was stopped by police in a black neighborhood with a track record of police harassment of citizens. In that column, Jackson said that racial injustice “is worse in modern Milwaukee than it was in segregated Birmingham” in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. focused his civil rights activism there.
The data show a black population segregated into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with declining prospects. Real black household income in 1979 was $39,105; in 2013 it was $27,438, a foul decline of nearly 30 percent. Household income for all races in Milwaukee has declined over the course of this century, but far worse for blacks and Hispanics than whites.
Nearly 40 percent of African-Americans are in poverty, up from 27 percent in 1969. Nearly 40 percent of African-Americans in the core working age (25-54) are unemployed. This is in stunning contrast to the 15.2 percent black unemployment rate in 1970. For males aged 20-24, the beginning of a work life, over two-thirds of blacks are unemployed — 68.4 percent — a staggering increase from 25.3 percent in 1970.
Schools are doubly segregated by race and by poverty. Seventy-one percent of black students attend “hyper-segregated schools” — those in which at least 9 of 10 students are minority. Nearly half of all black students go to schools with 90 percent poverty rates.
Robert Kraig, the executive director of Citizens Action of Wisconsin, wrote that the rioting that broke out in Milwaukee “was a predictable outpouring of frustration flowing from unbearable racial inequality and exclusion” that has spanned decades.
“What has been lacking in Milwaukee is the courage and vision to fight for solutions up to the scale of the problem,” he said. “Once the dust is settled in Sherman Park, the question will be which public officials, which community leaders, which corporate leaders are willing to stand up and fight for public interventions at the scale necessary to end Wisconsin’s system of economic apartheid and truly guarantee full opportunity for everyone in our great state.”
“Economic apartheid” is an apt phrase. It captures the reality that racial disparity is a byproduct of a racist system that America has never fully come to terms with and has never committed as a nation to fully unraveling.
What is true for Wisconsin is true for the entire country. But it is clear that the people who will “stand up” will not be Donald Trump and those who have joined the Trump circus. The man who would open his speech with a shout-out to Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor who unleashed the toxic “stop-and-frisk” police harassment in African-American communities – setting the context most recently for the death of Eric Garner in 2014 for the offense of selling loose cigarettes – is not the person to address the institutional racism that is at the root of racial inequity and injustice. The man who goes to a conservative white community to talk about how he will restore “law and order” to black communities is not the person who will reverse the trend of mass incarceration of African Americans and the devastation caused by racially unjust sentencing. Certainly the man who blames black unemployment on Latino immigrants, and not the white-controlled economic structures that do not value black lives and does not prioritize true economic justice, is not about to take the bold steps that the nation needs to close its racial divides.
The people who prize the “heritage” of the Confederate flag and whose ears pricked up when Trump blew the final dog whistle of his speech – the reference to “our common culture” – flooded conservative websites with effusive praise for Trump’s speech. That reaction confirms the obvious: Of all of the insults Trump has hurled at African Americans over the years, this speech was the worst.