The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump took a jab at NFL players protesting racism while honoring 12-year-old boy

President Trump gave his first State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 30. Here are the highlights from his remarks. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Historically, presidents don't use State of the Union addresses just to remain in good standing with their base. They are viewed as opportunities to win over voters who may not already support a politician.

But President Trump may not see a significant bump in his approval ratings from black voters after his first address.

Few demographics disapprove of the president more than black Americans. His comments equating anti-racism activists to white supremacists in Charlottesville, calling the nations from which some black immigrants hail “shithole countries,” and his continued attacks on the first black president have led many to conclude that Trump’s vision for making America great does not include them.

Before Trump’s State of the Union address, CNN’s Don Lemon asked Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.):

“Do you think he cares about black people?”

Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, replied: I don't. If you listen to his words, if you watch his actions.”

During the Tuesday speech, Trump said he wants a presidency that would benefit all Americans.

But he attracted quite a bit of attention for using an opportunity to honor one pro-Trump demographic while bringing up another that he has criticized. Many expect the president to remind the world during this weekend’s Super Bowl that he disagrees with NFL players protesting racism and police violence during the national anthem.

But some were caught off guard when Trump revisited the issue Tuesday night while he was honoring Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old boy from one of the few California counties that supported him, who has gained national attention for placing more than 40,000 flags on the graves of veterans.

While placing a flag on his grandfather’s grave to commemorate Veterans Day, Sharp noticed that the graves of other veterans were not marked with flags. He responded by adorning those graves with a flag, an act that has won him praise from both sides of the aisle.

The president honored him in his speech: “Young patriots like Preston teach all of us about our civic duty as Americans. Preston's reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

It is the last line that drew the criticism.

Some interpreted the line as Trump suggesting that black men, adults who say they have experienced racial discrimination for decades, need to take lessons on what it means to be an American from a white child. The line reminded his supporters and critics alike that no matter how often some citizens explain the heart and incentive behind the protest, Trump will attack it.

After conservative lawmakers jumped to their feet to applaud the comment, April Ryan, one of a handful of black White House correspondents, attempted to explain for the umpteenth time the reason former NFL player Colin Kaepernick first took a knee. She tweeted: “Taking the knee is about bringing attention to police involved shootings not against soldiers or the flag nor the the anthem.”

This is something that Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid previously laid out in a New York Times column.

He wrote:

“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.
It should go without saying that I love my country and I’m proud to be an American. But, to quote James Baldwin, ‘exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’ ”

Some Trump supporters disagree and used the moment when Preston's name was trending on Twitter to criticize the players.

Conservative radio host Dana Loesch tweeted:

“Sweet Preston. Placing flags, not taking a knee. #sotu”

The comments reminded black lawmakers of the reason for their own protest Tuesday night. More than a dozen black members of Congress attended Trump’s speech clad in kente cloth, a traditional fabric from the African nations that Trump allegedly referred to as “shithole” countries during a recent conversation about overhauling immigration rules.

Other black lawmakers chose to skip the address to avoid having to hear the president dishonor Americans who are black.

The New York district of Democratic Rep. Gregory W. Meeks is home to sizable populations of black Americans, including immigrants. Before the speech, he tweeted:

“He does not respect me or the communities I represent, so I cannot in good conscience sit idly on the House floor and listen to his scripted speech. #SOTU

While the placement of the president's comment was unexpected, few expect the president to budge on this issue — particularly given his history of remarks about and actions toward black Americans. And opposition to the protests remains high among many of the white and conservative voters who helped send Trump to the White House.

His lack of support among black voters is reinforced when he tells people to take a lesson from a white boy who is the same age as Tamir Rice was when he was killed by Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun in a park near his home.

After the speech, conservative radio host Stacy Washington, a black veteran asked: “Why wouldn't liberals cheer on the lowest black unemployment rate in 17 years? Or the president's resolve to eradicate the scourge of MS-13 killing innocent Americans?”

The reason is probably because, although Trump is being tough on the criminal acts of undocumented immigrants and taking credit for an unemployment rate that began declining during the Obama administration may attract applause from supporters, black voters want a leader who doesn’t pit those protesting racism against children who honor the military.

At the very least, the voters want a commander in chief who has enough of a historical framework to understand that a conversation that includes racism and the military needs to be nuanced enough to address the history of racial discrimination in the armed forces.