The 2016 election cycle always promised to have more questions than answers. Would expectations be higher or lower for the nation's 44th white commander in chief than they were for President Barack Obama? What would black voters demand—or settle for—as revolutionary fire continued to burn through the streets? Would Ben Carson ever admit that he resides somewhere over the rainbow, and would Martin O'Malley ever discuss being the inspiration for The Wire’s Mayor Tommy Carcetti?
Those questions, however, were quickly distilled into one urgent one as the playing field dwindled down to two: How many times and in how many ways could Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton scream "racist" and "bigot" at each other with the hope of ultimately terrifying black people into voting for one or the other?
This transparent cliché of a tactic has been employed since the primaries, when, during Bernie Sanders’ political revolution—remember those days?—an ugly Clinton campaign strategy re-emerged. The dog-whistling of her 2008 run against then-Sen. Obama—evoking the specter of assassination; touting the support of “hard-working Americans, white Americans"; hinting at Obama’s being Muslim, which, for many racist and xenophobic white Americans, was code word for n—ger—took a different tone against Sanders, the senator from the great, white state of Vermont.
Clinton dusted off talking points about her work with mentor Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, despite Edelman having said that the Clintons “weren’t friends in politics." And Hillary Clinton reminded voters at every turn that as a 24-year-old Yale Law student in 1972, she went undercover in an Alabama school to wage covert war against segregation. It quickly became clear that she was fashioning herself as the black people’s champion. And Sanders, despite his race-conscious economic and health care plans; small, yet important, role in Chicago's civil rights movement; and the support of several highly respected black surrogates, had a "Whites Only" problem he just couldn't shake.
So, now, here we are with Clinton and Trump, who both want black voters to know just how much they are hated by the other.
It should go without saying by now that Trump is an unapologetic bigot, an unrepentant racist, a definite sexist and possible rapist, but I'll say it anyway: The core of his campaign has been to throw red meat to white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual men, while insisting that buying into that white supremacist wasteland is the pathway to freedom for everyone else. He has sold hypercapitalism as the American dream while attempting to deflect from the half that's never been told. He is a reckless, xenophobic race-baiter who has no idea how to keep himself out of bankruptcy, let alone run a country.
Still, his "outreach" to black Americans has gotten one thing right: The Democratic Party has taken its most loyal constituency for granted. Tokenism and cosmetic diversity have been sold as equity and inclusion, and the IV drip of incrementalism being injected into the nation's most marginalized communities is packaged as a lifesaving device. Trump's charge that Clinton will do nothing to change these conditions for working-class and poor black voters once in office is an echo of charges levied against her by now President Obama in 2008.
Clinton's record of lobbying hard for the 1994 crime bill and calling black children "superpredators," as well as her strong support for the disastrous 1996 welfare-reform bill, is low-hanging fruit. And Trump is attempting to seize disenchanted black voters from the Democratic Party with one hand while beckoning to neo-Nazis with the other. To combat this, Clinton has ramped up her comparisons of Trump to the Ku Klux Klan—a convenient and effective tool employed to strike an emotional chord in black American voters and give Democrats the cover they need to carry on business as usual.
It is an ugly game that's being played, this pantomiming of political engagement with black voters, and mainstream media outlets, titillated by the theater—and no doubt the ratings—have given us all front-row seats to the spectacle. There is not much time to waste on devastatingly high black maternal mortality rates when Trump is the political descendant of David Duke. Charter schools may be school-to-prison pipelines, but Trump said "the blacks." Reports of racial economic disparities that will take centuries to close are bad, but Trump is inciting violence against black people at his rallies, and the United States is a better country than that.
That's the lie. That has always been the lie.
And Trump and Clinton screaming "racist" and "bigot" across the aisle is cheaply manufactured labor when the cost for black voters is much too high.