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Courting the black vote

Aug 25, 2016

Donald Trump is coming to Michigan again early next month, this time specifically to court black voters in Detroit. My guess is that the Clinton campaign is thrilled by this.

In fact, they probably wish Trump would spend every day until November 8 in Detroit. If he did so, and managed to make some connections with black Detroiters, he might manage to lift his level of support in that community to maybe four percent.

The brutal facts are these. African-Americans are more loyal to the Democratic Party than any other group in the nation – and for good reason. This was not always so. Less than a century ago, black voters were overwhelmingly Republican, a legacy to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. That began to change with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

One famous black newspaper publisher told his readers that it was time “to turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall.” But at late as 1960, one-third of blacks still voted Republican. That effectively ended four years later, when a Southern Democratic president threw his support behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, opposed it. After that, Richard Nixon was the first in a long series of GOP candidates who appealed to white racists by campaigning on a not-too-subtle Law and Order platform.

Every so often, Republicans have tried to break through. Thirty years ago, they nominated an African-American candidate for governor, former Wayne County executive Bill Lucas.

The theory was that he would win a substantial share of the black vote and add it to those who vote Republican, and win the election. Precisely the opposite occurred. Traditional Republicans deserted Lucas in droves. He did manage to get about 20% of the black vote, but was taunted as an Uncle Tom. In the end, he lost by more than two to one.

In recent years, Republican candidates for president have mostly attempted to reassure responsible Americans that they were not racists.

Traditionally, they have spoken to NAACP dinners, attended a few black church services, and had black advisors and appointees in their campaigns. They know they aren’t going to win even ten percent of the black vote, but don’t want to be perceived as actively hostile, for both decent and pragmatic reasons.

Donald Trump has done none of that. He has viciously attacked President Obama, and was a pioneer of the ridiculous birther movement. Last week, he spoke in a nearly all-white suburb of Lansing, and painted a largely false and lurid picture of the plight of black America. He then told blacks they should vote for him, adding, “what the hell have you got to lose?”

Trump finally forfeited his ability to be taken seriously by claiming that if he wins and runs for re-election, he will get at least 95 percent of black support, something that makes exactly as much sense as my claiming I’ll be the Detroit Pistons’ power forward in 2021.

For the sake of common decency, I hope Trump does try to build some bridges to African-Americans. But he can’t expect their votes. And every day he is in Michigan is a day he’s not in states like Ohio and Florida which he actually might win.

I suspect Hillary Clinton is smiling.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.