Politics

What Trump’s Black Church Appearance Is Really About

A leaked script reveals his intended audience: white Republicans.

Bishop Wayne T. Jackson.
Bishop Wayne T. Jackson will conduct a Q&A with Donald Trump on Saturday.

Screenshot via Detroit Free Press

On Saturday, Donald Trump will visit a black church in Detroit, his first stop at a black venue in this campaign. But he won’t hold a rally or a freewheeling discussion. Instead, he’ll sit down for a question-and-answer session with Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of the church Great Faith Ministries International.

The questions won’t come as a surprise. Team Trump requested them ahead of time, which isn’t uncommon for events like this one. What is unusual, however, is that Trump also has a script. As Yamiche Alcindor reports for the New York Times, Trump’s campaign “prepared lengthy answers for the submitted questions, consulting black Republicans to make sure he says the right things.”

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The Times has the script, and for something tailored to Trump, it’s tame. The Trump on paper there is sedate and milquetoast, with answers that are unresponsive to black American’s broad concerns. This is because he’s not talking to black Americans.

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“What would your administration do to bring down the racial tension that is in our country?” asks Jackson in the excerpt provided by the Times, prefacing his question with a reference to the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white gunman killed nine black worshippers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The response from “Trump”? “Our best hope for erasing racial tensions in America is to work toward a color-blind society. In business, we hire, retain and award based on merit. In society, however, we have divisions that can only be eliminated if we have equal opportunity and then equal access to programs and institutions that will lift all people in the country.”

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None of this speaks to the worries and anxieties held by millions of black Americans, which are intimately tied to race. Seventy percent of blacks point to racial discrimination as an obstacle to getting ahead, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. When asked about dealings with the police, with banks, and on the job, large majorities of blacks say they receive worse treatment on account of racism. To these Americans, Trump’s call for “colorblindness” is a nonanswer.

The same goes for his response to a later question from Jackson: “Mr. Trump what is your vision for America? And specifically Black America? If you repeal Obama care what is your plan to provide health care and medicine to those who can’t afford it, yet need it the most?”

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“If we are to Make America Great Again,” says “Trump” in his scripted response, “we must reduce, rather than highlight, issues of race in this country. I want to make race disappear as a factor in government and governance.”

Again, this is just unresponsive to the fact that race is indeed a factor, often to the detriment of black Americans. Addressing that fact requires a government that is cognizant of ongoing racial discrimination and the legacy of past racism. Trump’s formulation is a nonstarter, albeit a familiar one, that shares DNA with Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2007 declaration, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”*

But the most revealing part of the script lies in one of Jackson’s questions, not Trump’s answers. Before asking about perceptions of the Republican Party among black voters, Jackson says this: “In 2008 and 2012 we had two Republican Candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney and neither one of them came to Detroit, or any urban area that I can remember to even address the concerns of our community. First, I would like to commend you for coming to our community as a Republican Candidate.”

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In Jackson’s statement you see the point of this exercise. The goal isn’t genuine outreach—Trump has few answers for black voters. He doesn’t speak to their concerns or address past controversies, like his “birtherism,” which he continues to indulge at rallies with a sly stress of Barack Obama’s middle name. No, Trump’s goal is to look tolerant, to look patient and gracious while he takes praise from a black religious leader and gives boilerplate about “equal opportunity.”

Once again, Trump’s “black outreach” isn’t outreach to actual black voters. The same message of colorblindness and race-neutrality that falls flat with black voters does gangbusters with white ones. It’s white Republicans who say too much attention is paid to race (59 percent, according to Pew), and it’s white conservatives (71 percent) who say Obama has made race relations worse.

Trump’s prejudiced rhetoric has harmed him with some percentage of Republican-leaning voters. What better way to address this gap than to travel to a black church to give a message amenable to those white Republicans?

Trump may not convince Americans writ large that he’s a racial liberal. But he can mimic the language of a typical Republican on race and racism. And that’s the plan.

*Correction, Sept. 2, 2016: This article originally misidentified Chief Justice John Roberts as John Robert. (Return.)

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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