Donald Trump is one thing. Increasingly, his surrogates, are another. At times, it has simply become a question of who will speak, act or tweet in the most outrageous ways. On Monday, a clear example of this emerged by way of Mark Burns, a black pastor and prominent supporter of the Republican presidential nominee.
About midday Monday, Burns posted a pair of tweets featuring Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in blackface and in blond extension braids (see below). Burns has said and done any number of eyebrow-raising things throughout the campaign season, but something about this particular set of tweets provoked a different response.
Perhaps it was the odd fact that a black man — backing a Republican presidential nominee with a questionable history on race matters — thought tweeting out a cartoon image of a white woman in blackface amounted to a good idea. But there's also something else here worth noting. Burns's tweet, his explanation of that tweet, even his apology for the aforementioned tweet puts him in league with a long line of Republicans who embrace far-right policy ideas — a practice well within reason — but then attempt to sell those ideas to black and Latino voters in a manner that is itself offensive.
The Republican pitch to black voters — particularly when made by black Republicans — all too often requires a vast ideological journey, a University of Cincinnati study found late last year. In the end, the study found, this only emphasizes for black voters the divide between the parties, making black voters even more resistant to voting for Republicans.
In Burns's case, what he said and did Monday makes mass black political conversion — or even small scale movement — particularly unlikely. Everything from his tweet to his explanation to his subsequent apology were riddled long-running, false racial and ethnic stereotypes. It's almost as if Burns — and whoever thinks he's a quality surrogate in Trump's pursuit of black votes — thinks that these things will be perfectly all right, because they have come from a black man. Instead, what such rhetoric truly does is provide comfort to white voters who adhere to such racist ideas. It says these notions must not be that bad.
Burns has, as he often stresses, volunteered for this work. So an analysis of it is fair game. On Monday, Burns's strategy seemed to reach it's nadir.
Here is what Burns shared via Twitter:
One note for clarity here. The cartoon appears to be a combined reference to a 2008 Clinton presidential campaign event at which Clinton used the phrase, "I ain't no ways tired," while addressing a mostly black group in Selma, Ala. Clinton was, at the time, quoting a gospel song written in the black vernacular common to Negro spirituals and early gospel music. She pointed this out, and the song does exist. Her speech included this moment, a interlude of arguable awkwardness that Republicans have widely described as a strategic use of a "black accent."
The other idea on which this cartoon plays is a very hot one in Republican circles in 2016: the idea that black voters are easily conned via some very simple political tricks into voting for Democrats and getting nothing in return. This is what Burns, and many other Republicans, have decided to call "plantation mentality." (We'll deal with that in a separate post.)
MSNBC gave Burns a chance to explain his tweet. Click this link to watch the full video. This is the key portion of what Burns said before beginning to speak at a volume usually reserved for pulpits and assorted references that are just plain difficult to follow.
... The tweet is a frustration that I have as a black man here in America. How I see African Americans in many cases, not every case, but in many cases, are suffering throughout this country and to see how, en masse, we have been voting for the Democratic Party, en masse, and yet we have very little to show for it. …
What's important is the fact that blackface is offensive to black people but what's more offensive is not so much just that there's blackface but that millions of African Americans are on welfare, millions of, thousands of African Americans are on food stamps. And, we as a people, the net worth of a black family is less than $5,000. The net worth of a white family is around $93,000. The net worth of an Asian American family is about $113,000. We are not at the promised land that Dr. King spoke about. … This is a vexation and a frustration, where many of us are making decisions and we're voting Democrat … because that's what Mamma did, that's what Grand Daddy did and we are not looking at some of the policies that are hurting us as a people. We got to break the welfare system. …
The picture [included in the tweet] is designed to do draw attention to the fact that Hillary Clinton do pander after black people, she do pander and the polices are not good for African Americans.
Burns's rather ironic departure from standard English grammar during this exchange is hard to miss. So too is the quick turn, in a moment of televised crisis, to the issue of black welfare dependency.
Burns's argument that black voters should secure some sort of political or policy gains in exchange for their support is valid. That's how the system works. However, his claim that black voters and Democrats are engaged in a nearly one-sided relationship where the only benefit for loyalty to the Democratic Party is access to welfare falls apart on the facts.
Black voters have, much like almost every other portion of the electorate, indicated repeatedly that their primary concerns are jobs, education, security, race relations and health care. This legislative session alone, Democrats in Congress have attempted to advance gun control measures, bills that supporters said would reduce student loan repayment costs and to restore the full weight of the Voting Rights Act. During President Obama's tenure, black unemployment has receded to its usual state. (In July it sat at 8.4 percent, about twice the rate of white joblessness — 4.3 percent.) And, black health insurance coverage rates have soared.
Could more be done or should it have been attempted? That's a legitimate question. But to say nothing has been done is a falsehood.
Poverty is a real issue. Black and Latino families in both rural and urban areas are disproportionately effected. However, in rural areas, communities represented in most cases by Republican officials, poverty remains slightly higher than in the nation's cities.
And, when it comes to an actual head count of the poor, there are nearly two times more white Americans living in poverty than blacks. As such, white Americans also make up the majority of those receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps.
And while there were more black (30.5 percent) than white (27 percent) among the 3.53 million Americans receiving cash welfare assistance in fiscal 2014, the difference is negligible. Moreover, in several states where politics are dominated by Republicans — Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas — black poverty rates and social assistance program participation rates are particularly high.
(Click on the charts below to enlarge them, follow the source links. This is the complicated truth about poverty and social assistance in America, even if Burns didn't mention it.)
Taken together, this isn't evidence of a black electorate interested only in welfare assistance or that benefits from such help far more often than whites. Burns's ideas aren't based on facts as much as they are long running notions about black life that he is quite comfortable repeating.
Late Monday night, Burns had deleted the Clinton in blackface tweet and later posted a video apology, saying that it was not his intention to "offend anyone." He offered much of the same Tuesday. What remains unclear is whether Burns understands that his explanation for his tweet and his apology, are more than problematic, too.