Donald Trump is going to be president of the United States, and therefore people are going to have to talk with him.
Some of those people will be black and will disagree with Trump, some of those people will be black and agree with everything Trump says, and some of those people will be black and just doing their jobs.
Since Trump is going to be in office for the next four to eight years, it’s a pretty good time to get a handle on the right and the wrong way for black public figures and celebrities to interact with a president who’s viewed as a physical and existential threat by most African Americans. In the last 48 hours, comedian/show host/suburban Hotep Steve Harvey and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) have given us a crash course.
For the record, Trump’s rhetoric throughout his campaign was implicitly, and at times explicitly, racist and anti-black. His supporters hold more racist attitudes than your average American or Republican. He selected a white terrorist sympathizer as his chief adviser, and he nominated a lifelong opponent of civil rights as attorney general. If one is choosing to meet with Trump, these are publicly known, undisputed facts, and you will be associated with them one way or another.
On Friday, Harvey met with the president-elect at Trump Tower to discuss “mentoring” programs and black inner-city issues. That same day, during an NBC interview, Lewis said that he would not be attending Trump’s inauguration because he thought PEOTUS was illegitimate. Social media has been blowing up both men ever since for vastly different reasons.
First, there is nothing inherently wrong with Harvey meeting with Trump to discuss issues of urban black poverty. There were poor black people before the Obama administration and during the administration, and there will be poor black people during the Trump administration. If you want to help poor black people, as Harvey claims, then certainly one of the avenues that can be explored is sitting with the president-elect and discussing initiatives.
No one should fault Harvey (or any other celebrity, for that matter) for meeting with Trump about an issue of importance. I get the disgust. And D.L. Hughley’s admonition to fuck Trump as a staff, label and organization is not entirely without merit.
However, what I fault Harvey for is failing to publicly acknowledge the difference between his personal conversation with Trump and Trump’s rhetoric—not just since the election, not just during the election, but for his 40-plus years of public life. I fault Harvey for allowing himself to be used as photo-op deodorant for the stink of racism and white nationalism that permeates this incoming administration. I fault Harvey for trying to cover up his own craven attempt to curry favor with Trump by name-dropping Obama. I fault Harvey for centering himself in a conversation about black poverty instead of promoting those with deeper commitment expertise and resumes. Is it really so difficult to say, “I appreciate the call, Mr. President Trump, but I’m already active in this area. Let me bring along these unknown underappreciated men and women doing the dirty work on the ground who could use your federal support.”
Of course, the typical counter to this would be, “How do you know Steve Harvey isn’t doing that exact thing?” and “How can you engage the new administration if you won’t even meet with them?” Which is where John Lewis comes in. Less than 24 hours after Harvey did his black “walk of shame” from Trump Tower in New York City, the president-elect was tweeting insults at the civil rights icon. Clearly angered that Lewis was not attending the inauguration and calling his presidency into question, Trump attacked Lewis and his 5th Congressional District in Atlanta as “falling apart” and “full of crime,” which is not only a lie but also a blatantly racist attack on a perceived “black” district.
Debating Trump vs. Lewis is pointless. As one tweet pointed out:
However, Lewis demonstrates a principled, practical approach to Trump and the failure on the part of Harvey. No matter how nice the Trump Tower meeting was, the next morning Trump did something racist and vulgar. Now Harvey, who praised Trump as a “sincere” person on Facebook whom he’d sit with “anytime,” at best looks like a fool and at worse might be confused with another Steve.
Lewis is a member of Congress. If Trump and the GOP propose legislation that benefits African Americans, Lewis will fight for it and vote for it and be at the Rose Garden signing ceremony. What he’s not about to do is show up at the inauguration, which is in large part a celebration of the new administration. (Lewis doesn’t have to attend a “peaceful transfer of power.” C-SPAN from the comfort of his home is fine.)
Unlike Harvey, Lewis voices his complaints, refuses to be a part of Trump’s public relations message and will get down to the business of doing needed work in the black community even if he sees Trump as illegitimate. Meanwhile, Harvey is going to Think Like an Opportunist and Act Like a Community Leader.
Harvey’s will not be the last or even the most craven attempt by a black celebrity to curry favor with Trump under the guise of “coming together” or “helping the community.” However, the proximity of his action to Lewis’ should give us a good template for the right and the wrong way to engage. It’s going to be a long four to eight years. We need to focus on who’s doing the right thing the right way, and spend less time on the wrong people doing whatever gets them closest to power.