In a so-called listening session last week to kick off Black History Month, some African Americans surrounded President Donald Trump at the White House, including former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault and GOP political commentator Paris Dennard.
Peppered with numerous racial missteps and misplaced critiques of the press, Trump’s breakfast-meeting remarks included an acknowledgment of Dr. Ben Carson. “During the campaign, I’d go around with Ben to a lot of different places I wasn’t so familiar with,” Trump noted. “They’re incredible people.”
I assume that Carson took him to urban communities, and African Americans are the incredible people Trump was referencing. It wasn’t entirely clear (nor were his comments about Frederick Douglass having done “an amazing job”). Noteworthy is the president’s admission that he wasn’t familiar with the communities he visited. So why does he repeatedly make outrageous statements about black hopelessness and destruction in those places, at times likening them to Afghanistan?
Trump’s one-sided generalizations about African Americans simultaneously scare and aggravate me. I want him to stop. I suspect others do as well, which is why 92 percent of us voted for candidates other than him and why so many of us maintain that he is #NotMyPresident. Much of what Trump says advances racist narratives about us and communities in which we live. His assumptions are surely based on stereotypes and incomplete facts.
Carson, a surgeon and previous presidential candidate, is Trump’s pick for secretary of housing and urban development. Of course the president’s only black Cabinet nominee has been asked to oversee housing and urban development. During the campaign, then-candidate Trump repeatedly declared that African Americans walking streets in inner cities get shot.
This is not true of all, or even most, of us. I’ve lived in inner-city Philadelphia for a decade. I’ve never been shot. My work has taken me to South Side Chicago many times in recent years; I wasn’t shot during my visits there. Chicago incontestably has a significant problem with gun violence, yet the overwhelming majority of African Americans who live there, in New York City and in other cities haven’t been shot.
Given that he only references inner cities when speaking about my people, I wonder if Trump even realizes that not all of us live in urban contexts. I have relationships with thousands of black people who reside in small towns, suburbs and big cities across the United States, but I personally know none who’ve been shot. I seriously doubt that Trump knows many more.
To a mostly white crowd at a campaign rally last August, Trump said of African Americans: “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs.” I study racial equity in the United States and am a serious appreciator of facts. Statistics make undeniably clear that opportunity and wealth inequities consistently produce disproportionately negative effects on African Americans. My people are not genetically predisposed to poverty or underperformance. Instead, racist structures, systems and policies often devastate our communities in especially severe ways. I wonder if Trump understands this distinction. And does he know that not all African Americans are poor and out of work? Multiple federal data sources (pdf) show that most black adults have jobs, including those of us who live in big cities.
In addition to perpetuating incomplete facts, one-sided narratives about African Americans are also extremely dangerous. I’ve spent my 14-year research career disrupting them. I don’t offer “alternative facts” in my work, but instead highlight important aspects of our lives and conditions that are often overlooked by those who hear only bad things about communities of color.
For instance, a team of researchers from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education conducted a study on young men of color attending 40 public high schools across New York City. We went to each of these schools, which were on average 94 percent black and Latino. None of us were shot or assaulted. We were there to conduct extensive interviews with students who were academically successful, college bound and college ready.
Trump’s mischaracterizations of majority-minority schools would lead most Americans to erroneously conclude that nothing good happens in them, little learning occurs, violence erupts every day and no one goes to college. That’s not what we observed. Instead, we found hundreds of young men at these inner-city school sites who spoke extensively about goodness in their schools: teacher practices, peer support and other factors that helped them succeed. They’re presently in college; one is at the University of Pennsylvania, the same university that Trump and his children attended.
In the report we published from this project (pdf), I begged the nation to “please stop mischaracterizing young men of color as hopeless thugs who care nothing about their education, communities, and futures.” I am now making the same plea to Trump. He and Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education, should visit traditional urban public schools. Perhaps he would stop saying that they are no good.
Trump’s repeated comments reinforce deficient, criminalized narratives about African Americans. Trayvon Martin was killed because he seemingly didn’t belong in the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood that George Zimmerman was patrolling. No way Trayvon was supposed to be in that nice gated community, because we all live in urban ghettos, the Zimmerman-Trump logic goes.
Through his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, President Barack Obama aimed to help our nation see young men of color differently. His successor is undermining this important effort and placing millions of black men and women, including me, in danger of being discriminated against, terrorized by police and murdered for reasons of unfounded suspicion. Trump is making African Americans less, not more, safe. Last summer he posed a provocative question to black voters: “What the hell do you have to lose?” Answer: our lives.
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Shaun R. Harper is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He was also named to The Root 100’s list of influential African Americans for 2016. Follow Harper on Twitter.