As February began, President Trump made a seemingly routine political gesture by convening in the White House with African American allies to mark Black History Month. Initially started as “Negro History Week” by famed African American historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month has been recognized by every U.S. president dating to Gerald R. Ford. The observance has become a period in which the country acknowledges the wide-ranging contributions of a group of Americans whose story in the United States began with bondage and chains.
Trump’s “listening session,” however, was quickly overshadowed by a set of rambling remarks in which he complained about the news media and described abolitionist Frederick Douglass — who died in 1895 — as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
The event highlighted Trump’s particular challenges in winning over African Americans. Most obviously, he has been dogged by questions about connections between his advisers and the white nationalist movement. During the 2016 campaign, he was widely criticized by the black community for making a seemingly flippant and tongue-in-cheek appeal by asking: “What do you have to lose?” The campaign also resurrected allegations surrounding a 1973 housing-related federal discrimination lawsuit.
On Election Day, an estimated 8 percent of African Americans voted for Trump. Trump’s dust-up with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, in the lead-up to the inauguration did nothing to ease the tensions.
But with Black History Month upon us and the president perhaps attempting to establish a conversation with the black community, does Trump have any chance at winning over African Americans? Data from late in the 2016 campaign suggest little hope.
That conclusion emerges from a national survey of 1,200 African American registered voters conducted by the African American Research Collaborative (AARC) in the week before Election Day. The survey includes an oversample of black voters in three battleground states — Georgia, Pennsylvania and Nevada — as well as an oversample of voters younger than 40. In the analysis I report here, the data are weighted to the U.S. Census American Community Survey (based on state, age and full demographics) to approximate a nationally representative sample of black registered voters.
One clue to how difficult it would be for Trump to win over African Americans is that many viewed their vote explicitly as part of an effort to stop him from reaching the White House. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they saw 2016 as a critical election. And of that group, a majority (52 percent) said the need to stop Trump made the election even more important than reelecting the nation’s first African American president in 2012.
Although overall levels of enthusiasm among black voters were lower than in 2012, about 21 percent of respondents claimed to be more enthusiastic about voting in 2016. Of those, 43 percent said the reason for their enthusiasm was the opportunity to vote against Trump.
But Trump’s policy positions are also a problem. For instance, Trump spoke favorably during the campaign about the “stop and frisk” policy used for years by the New York Police Department. As shown in the figure below, African Americans in the November survey were overwhelmingly opposed to the tactic, which was used disproportionately against blacks and Hispanics. Rather, 96 percent of African American voters strongly favor the use of body cameras for police officers.
Moreover, Trump is out of step with the views of blacks even on issues that are not discussed as central to the African American community. For instance, 80 percent of black voters opposed Trump’s campaign pledge of a ban on Muslims entering the United States. African Americans also expressed strong opposition to Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and support for expanding health care rather than repealing the Affordable Care Act, as Trump has promised.
In the end, these data reveal that it will take more than a marking of Black History Month for Trump to win over African Americans. Unless he makes major changes to his policy positions, the divide between the president and black America is likely to remain wide.
Jonathan Collins is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.