Trump Picks Another Battle With Black Athletes

The president is preoccupied with well-known black people and their perceived disrespect.

LaVar Ball and Donald Trump

LaVar Ball and Donald Trump.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sean M. Haffey and Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

Puerto Rico still lacks power, millions of children are waiting for Congress to reauthorize a vital health insurance program, and a massive pipeline has leaked more than 200,000 gallons of oil into the American heartland. It’s possible President Trump is focused on these problems, but you wouldn’t know it from his Twitter feed. There, he is again preoccupied with well-known black people and their perceived disrespect.

On Sunday, it was LaVar Ball, father of LiAngelo Ball, one of three UCLA basketball players who were arrested in China on shoplifting charges. Trump had helped secure their release during his recent trip to China, announcing his involvement in a tweet. “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

The elder Ball was asked about this on ESPN, where he downplayed the incident and Trump’s involvement. “Who?” he said, when asked about the president. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.” The president responded in kind. “Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” he wrote on Twitter. Later in the day, for good measure, he added that LaVar Ball was “ungrateful.”

Not content to go after just one famous black person, President Trump started his Monday with a jab at NFL player Marshawn Lynch. “Marshawn Lynch of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders stands for the Mexican Anthem and sits down to boos for our National Anthem. Great disrespect! Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down,” said Trump.

Why does Trump turn to this well at every opportunity? The charitable explanation is that it is a strategic distraction from political difficulties, or just bad news. And it is true that the Marshawn Lynch tweet preempted a BuzzFeed story on National Security Advisor H.R McMaster, who allegedly dismissed the president as an “idiot” and a “dope” with the intelligence of a “kindergartener.” (The BuzzFeed story was published hours after the Lynch tweet, but the White House was presumably aware of its existence by this morning.)

That is the complex explanation. But there’s a simpler one. If Trump is preoccupied with black athletes and their perceived disrespect, if he’s quick to call them “ungrateful,” it has as much to do with his own prejudice as it does with any political strategy. Donald Trump has few fixed beliefs. If, as president, he acts as a conservative Republican, it’s out of political expediency. He doesn’t share Paul Ryan’s deep-seated opposition to the welfare state, or Mike Pence’s commitment to conservative evangelical Christianity. But there is one place where Trump has been consistent: As a landlord, as a real estate mogul, and as a politician, Trump has indulged or exploited anti-black racism.

As the young president of his father’s real estate company, Trump discriminated against black and Hispanic renters, secretly marking their applications with a “C” for “colored,” and steering them away from buildings with mostly white residents. While Trump denied intentional discrimination in his buildings, one housing activist told investigators at the time how a building superintendent acknowledged that he “followed a racially discriminatory rental policy at the direction of his superiors.” Trump never admitted guilt, but he eventually settled with the Justice Department.

Years later, in 1989, Trump placed full-page advertisements in four New York daily newspapers, calling for reinstatement of the death penalty in reference to the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers accused (and wrongly convicted) of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. “Muggers and murderers should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” he wrote. After spending years in prison, the five men were eventually cleared by DNA evidence and a confession by the actual attacker. Trump has refused to budge from his own assessment of their guilt, saying as recently as last year that “they were guilty.”

It’s possible Trump is just stubborn. But his history makes that unlikely. At the time that he was doubling down on his belief in the guilt of the Central Park Five, Trump was on his way to winning the presidency on the strength of a campaign that was soaked in racism, and built on the foundation of his “birther” crusade against Barack Obama. For years, Trump was the most vocal proponent of the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was an illegitimate president, born outside of the United States. With this advocacy, he built a political following that would eventually help him win the Republican presidential primary.

Donald Trump has been in the public eye for more than 40 years. He’s worn several hats and claimed multiple identities. But throughout, he’s been dogged by charges of anti-black racism, whether it’s discriminating against tenants, or allegedly disparaging his black casino employees as inherently “lazy.” Now, as president of the United States, he picks fights with black athletes, disparages black lawmakers, and stands up for white nationalists.

Perhaps Trump is playing a cynical game of base management, assuaging his core supporters with dog whistles and bigotry. But looking at his life, the more likely explanation is also the simplest one: Donald Trump goes after black people because he doesn’t like them.