Donald Trump kicked off a three-day criminal-justice forum at South Carolina’s Benedict College on Friday, giving a racially fraught speech before an audience predominated by Trump friendlies and including few students from the HBCU.
Trump was the headliner Friday at the “Second Step Presidential Justice Forum.” Billed as a bipartisan discussion of criminal-justice issues, the forum’s name makes reference to the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation signed by Trump that has led to the early release of thousands of federal prisoners, many of them African American.
The event was promoted as a chance for Trump to—as the New York Times explains—“step outside the friendly confines of his supporter base and pitch his administration’s record on criminal justice reform and black employment directly to a black audience.”
But rather than sticking to a script touting bipartisan accomplishments that may have some positive impact on black people, Trump couldn’t resist taking potshots at the nation’s first black president while standing on the campus of an HBCU.
As the Times reports, Trump:
recalled the 2016 speech in which he urged black voters to support him because “what the hell do you have to lose,” repeating the line multiple times and saying his administration had kept its promise to those voters.
And he described how his administration had helped historically black colleges and universities and suggested that voters “check out the last administration and see what they did for you.”
“Not too much,” he said.
By contrast, Trump crowed, his administration had helped African Americans more than anything “in the history of our country.”
The Benedict College audience was seeded with Trump supporters, with more than half of the tickets, per the Times, “reserved for guests and allies of the administration, including many black supporters of Mr. Trump who came from out of state.”
Fewer than 10 Benedict College students received tickets.
Adding insult to injury, in the view of many Trump detractors given his record of antagonizing or outright offending black folks, was the decision by the forum’s organizers to award Trump with its annual “Bipartisan Justice Award.”
A number of Democrats vying for Trump’s seat in next year’s presidential elections are to attend candidates’ events during the forum on its second and third days, Saturday and Sunday.
However, at least one of them, California Sen. Kamala Harris, said she would not be participating in the events at Benedict due to the honor bestowed upon Trump, telling the Times, “Mr. Trump had spent decades ‘celebrating mass incarceration.’”
Beyond the issue of incarceration, under the Trump administration HBCUs have seen a 14.3 percent increase in federal funding, the Times notes. However, support for the polarizing president remains low among black Americans, with an approval rating among blacks for Trump of about 10 percent.