Published 4:00 AM EDT Sep 25, 2018
Under President Donald Trump, the Republican Party has become a very white party.
And going into the midterms, the president and the GOP seem uninterested in protecting black voting rights. They'd rather stir up their base by vilifying black Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters of California and shouting "socialist" at minority Democratic candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Andrew Gillum of Florida.
Trump’s GOP also delights in criticizing black football players for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
Trump considers African-Americans who criticize him unpatriotic, ungrateful and, in the case of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, literally un-American.
With the exception of Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, the only African-Americans close to the president seem to be people charged with deflecting criticism that Trump’s rhetoric and policies are racist.
Trump missed the rise of the black middle class
From Kanye West to Omarosa Manigault Newman, Diamond and Silk, Jim Brown to Ray Lewis, the African-Americans identified with Trump are neither knowledgeable about Washington politics nor experienced in social policies that affect black America.
They also tend to be upper-class or rich athletes and pop stars. For Trump, the black policy expert does not exist. The black academic does not exist.
To hear Trump talk, America’s black population is synonymous with poverty, unemployment and gunfire in bad neighborhoods. That prompted him to ask the famously disdainful question when trying to persuade black voters to support his 2016 campaign, “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Somehow, he has missed the rise of a striving black middle class in America over the past half-century — the greatest accomplishment of the civil rights movement.
It’s not as if there aren’t prominent, skilled black conservatives who have worked with Republican presidents. What about Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice? Black conservative intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, Walter E. Williams and Shelby Steele don’t play major roles in this administration, either.
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Only 3 percent of registered black voters identify with the Republican Party, and just 8 percent of black voters lean Republican. During the 2016 election, according to the Pew Research Center, Trump received just 8 percent of the black vote.
Compare that with the 84 percent of black voters who lean Democrat, the 70 percent who identify as Democrats, and the 88 percent who picked Hillary Clinton in 2016.
There are two black Republicans in the House and one in the Senate. Compare that with the 43 African-American Democrats in the House and two in the Senate.
Thus, there are few black people able to advance Trump’s understanding of black America: no one to tell him that most African-Americans are not “living in hell,” as he said during a 2016 debate; no one to tell him that blaming Charlottesville, Virginia, on “both sides” is both factually incorrect and morally reprehensible.
It is not just the absence of smart black voices around Trump that creates a vacuum. He does not hire white people who have appreciation for the history of the civil rights movement and an understanding of today’s key racial issues.
We need black voices in the White House
To the contrary, Trump hired people like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, people with ties to the “alt-right” universe of skinheads, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
The importance of having informed, well-connected, capable black and white voices speaking on civil rights near the president has been demonstrated across U.S. history. At a key moment in the racial turbulence of the 1950s and 1960s, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had skilled black advisers. E. Frederic Morrow served in the Eisenhower administration, Clifford Alexander in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and Robert Brown in the Nixon White House.
When black children were killed in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and blacks began rioting in big northern cities, Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, made time to meet with leading black scholars, activists and writers.
James Baldwin, the famous writer who led the meeting, told the attorney general that black people could not be pleased with gradual steps toward racial equality. He reminded Kennedy that African-Americans had arrived in America in large numbers before Kennedy’s Irish ancestors — yet here he was asking Kennedy to protect his rights as a U.S. citizen.
The meeting ended abruptly, with the attorney general writing them off as radicals with little to offer in practical solutions. And yet RFK became far more vocal in his support for civil rights following the meeting. It was, in part, due to his prodding that JFK delivered legislation to Congress that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Trump has no one comparable to James Baldwin anywhere near the Oval Office. Instead, he has a few smiling black faces who are either afraid or unwilling to tell him how to avoid tearing the country apart by race.
What African-Americans “have to lose” — to answer the question Trump himself once posed — are black people willing to teach him these tough lessons.
Juan Williams is a co-host of Fox News' "The Five" and author of “What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?: Trump’s War on Civil Rights,” published Sept. 25. Follow him on Twitter: @TheJuanWilliams