“My administration is delivering for African Americans like never before. No President has done more for our black community.”
— Trump, in a campaign rally, March 2
Depending on the day, President Trump likes to declare he has done more for African Americans than any other president — or, he might concede, since Abraham Lincoln. Five times since the start of the year Trump has asserted this, so it’s clear we need to address it in detail.
In his most recent tweet, Trump pointed to specific achievements to bolster his claim, so we will see how this stands up to the work of previous presidents.
Lincoln, of course, freed the slaves in the Confederacy via the Emancipation Proclamation and pressed for passage of constitutional amendments to give them equal status under the law. It’s hard to top those achievements.
But the claim that Trump has exceeded every other president since Lincoln earned only derision from prominent historians. Instead, they said Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is clearly the president who had the most lasting impact on the lives of African Americans. These legislative victories were not easy, requiring Johnson to build coalitions with Republicans and liberal Democrats to defeat the powerful segregationists in his own party who dominated the South.
Here’s a sampling of historians who point to Johnson:
Michael Beschloss, historian and author of nine books on the presidency: “I would absolutely say that LBJ would be number #2.”
David Garrow, Pulitzer-prize winning historian on the civil rights movement: “I believe no question that virtually all U.S. historians would rank LBJ #1 among presidents on ‘who’s done the most for the Black community'” since the start of the 20th century.
H.W. Brands, historian at the University of Texas at Austin: “President Trump has made many outlandish claims, and this is squarely in that category. LBJ’s Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act rank right next to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.”
Max J. Skidmore, a University of Missouri historian who assessed the performance of every president in a 2004 book: “Presidents who have done the most for black civil rights since Lincoln would include Ulysses S. Grant (securing creation of Department of Justice and empowering the attorney general to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan and racial violence, etc.), Harry Truman (de-segregating the military, using executive order to circumvent a Congress dominated by the south), LBJ (working for, and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965. … Additionally, it is little remembered, but when LBJ signed his landmark Medicare Act in 1965, he secured de-segregation of hospitals throughout the south, which had been universal, and anywhere else it existed. That was an enormous accomplishment. Barack Obama should be included for his success in passing the Affordable Care Act, which is one of the greatest anti-poverty measures that this country has ever enacted.”
David Greenberg, a Rutgers University scholar who has written a history of White House spin in the past century: “I don’t see how Trump or anyone can seriously believe this claim. Clearly, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were monumental achievements that changed the life of black Americans and LBJ will always be remembered for working to pass those into law. We can also point to important achievements under FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and many other presidents far more notable.”
As for Trump’s list of achievements in his tweet, that was dismissed as small beer. “Trump’s so-called accomplishments will not even be noticed by historians five years from now,” Brands said.
Trump’s Opportunity Zones program, for instance, was supposed to channel investments into poor neighborhoods. But the New York Times revealed the “most visible impact so far has been to set off a feeding frenzy among the wealthiest Americans. They are poised to reap billions in untaxed profits on high-end apartment buildings and hotels in trendy neighborhoods, storage facilities that employ only a handful of workers or student housing in bustling college towns.”
The funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) is a congressional initiative. “Congress does all this work and presents it to him in the budget, and he can choose to sign it. This year, he held off on signing some significant STEM funding, making HBCUs beg for it,” said Marybeth Gasman, a Rutgers professor and one of the leading authorities on HBCUs. “Most HBCU support is the result of Congress. Trump has promised all kinds of things to HBCUs and has followed through on little. Under Trump, the White House Initiative for HBCUs was moved to the White House and is quite quiet compared to the work under President Obama’s administration.”
School choice offers families money to attend charter schools or home-school eduction. Passage of the First Step Act, which overhauled federal sentencing laws, was a scaled-down version of an effort that began in 2015 and built on a law passed by Obama.
As for black unemployment rates, they continued on a downward trend that started in the Obama administration — until the coronavirus pandemic. “While it’s true that economic conditions under Trump continued to improve for blacks as well as whites, the devastation wrought by the pandemic has complicated his efforts to claim credit,” Greenberg said. “If he gets credit for the improving economy through early 2020, why should he avoid blame for the current state of the economy?”
On the negative side, many experts faulted Trump for his attacks on voting rights (which mainly benefit minorities) and his statements as president that have been labeled as racist and have fanned the flames of racial division.
We asked the White House for a defense of Trump’s tweet, in light of the objections from historians, and did not get a response.
The Pinocchio Test
The judgment of history is fickle and reputations rise and fall over time. But we feel confident enough that the achievements touted by Trump do not come close to LBJ’s actions — let alone several other presidents — that at this time we can award this claim Four Pinocchios. Trump is never one to be modest, but this kind of bragging is simply ridiculous.
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