He looked up from the teleprompter.
“Nobody has ever delivered results like we’ve delivered,” he added. “Nobody has come close.”
That claim alone has been debunked, given how sweeping and dramatic past presidential efforts on behalf of black Americans have been.
The president then walked though a largely familiar litany. His claims:
- “We enacted landmark criminal justice reform, something that nobody else could get done."
- “We secured permanent and record funding for HBCUs — that’s historically black colleges and universities — numbers that they never thought were possible."
- “We expanded affordable options for better health care."
- “We created Opportunity Zones,” tax breaks for investing in low-income areas.
- “We achieved the lowest black, Hispanic, and Asian unemployment rates in American history.”
That, in a nutshell, is Trump’s case as he seeks to woo black voters (or, at least, dissuade them from enthusiastically supporting former vice president Joe Biden). It’s a case that’s worth evaluating.
It is true that, under Trump, black employment reached a new high and black unemployment a low. These figures each carry immediate asterisks.
Trump likes to talk about how many Americans were working prior to the economic shutdown spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, although that figure depends heavily on population growth. Sure, 160-million-plus people were working, but it would have been hard for Harry Truman to hit that number in 1950 when the population was 152 million.
It’s also hard to evaluate black employment relative to past history because data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics only goes back to 1972.
Nonetheless, Trump’s points about the employment numbers are correct. The question, then, is: How much of this is due to Trump?
Looking at the trend in employment numbers, it’s not hard to see why that would be the case. The number of black, Hispanic and white Americans working over the past seven years had increased steadily until the pandemic emerged.
We can use those past employment numbers to project where employment might be expected to be if the trends continued. What those projections look like depends on what period you use. Look solely at how employment was trending in 2016, and white employment would have been expected to be far lower than it was pre-pandemic. Use the entire 2013 to 2016 period, though, and white employment was lower than what might be expected.
This is useful because of how black employment stands out: each of the projected figures is above the actual value. In other words, black employment under Trump is lower than what the trends might have suggested.
This is very rough analysis, admittedly, and fails to consider factors such as how employment slows as unemployment rates drop. And unemployment did drop under Trump — again, continuing a trend that began under Obama.
Using the same analysis as above, we see the same result: Black unemployment was higher than it would have been under several projected scenarios. Continuing the trend of unemployment seen in 2016 roughly matches where black unemployment actually ended up before the pandemic hit.
Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric was that the economy was stalling or collapsing and that he could turn things around. As president, he has maintained that rhetoric, claiming to have boosted a fumbling economy to new heights. That rhetoric was always overblown and, in the case of black employment, hard to defend.
Criminal justice reform
In December 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act into law. It passed Congress on a largely bipartisan basis.
It includes several provisions aimed at scaling back the emphasis on incarceration that emerged as crime rates spiked in the 1990s, largely due to the emergence of crack cocaine. The law shortened mandatory minimum sentences, scaled back the federal “three strikes” rules and gave judges more leeway in sentencing nonviolent offenders. It also made the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.
That law, signed by Obama, reduced the difference in sentences that were imposed for crack and powder cocaine — differences that often overlapped with the race of the defendants — but applied only from 2010 forward. The First Step Act extended that backward.
The law has been hailed as an important step in reducing the racially unbalanced application of drug laws in the United States. It does build on work that Obama did, but, as our fact-checkers have written, goes further.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the vast majority of black Americans aren’t directly affected by its provisions. Black Americans, thanks in part to the unevenness and bias of the criminal justice system, are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated. But a 2001 analysis from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, even at that point, only about 1 in 6 black Americans were likely to end up in a state or federal prison. (The figure was significantly higher for black men.)
Again, the law is important in fixing disparities. Trump does have a habit, though, of reducing the needs of black America to revisions of criminal sentencing and improving “inner cities,” which only captures a small part of the black experience.
To that point:
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) championed the inclusion of “opportunity zones” in the 2017 tax bill that Trump signed into law. Its provisions reward investment in impoverished areas by deferring taxes on the sale of stocks and other holdings if the assets from those sales are invested in certain high-need geographic areas.
The problem, as the New York Times reported last August, is that the benefits have largely gone to wealthy Americans who have often made investments with no obvious benefit to the surrounding communities.
“Billions of untaxed investment profits are beginning to pour into high-end apartment buildings and hotels, storage facilities that employ only a handful of workers, and student housing in bustling college towns, among other projects,” Jesse Drucker and Eric Lipton reported. “Many of the projects that will enjoy special tax status were underway long before the opportunity-zone provision was enacted.”
Scott, in an opinion piece published by the Washington Examiner, touted successes such as “an innovative vertical farm that will work to employ formerly incarcerated individuals in Wilmington, Delaware.” He also said that “a mobile home park will be transformed into 800 units of affordable housing to be offered first to current residents” in Charlottesville
Those in the communities, though, are skeptical about the effects. Michigan’s Kresge Foundation supported the effort, but its social investment officer told the Times that “perhaps 95 percent of this is doing no good for people we care about.”
And, again, even if 100 percent were targeted to the needs of poor Americans, that still only affects a fraction of the black community. Census Bureau data indicate that about a quarter of black Americans are beneath the poverty level, but fewer than 1 in 5 live in counties with poverty levels in the highest quintile.
Trump’s claim that his administration has “expanded affordable options for better health care” is not actually something he includes in his patter about what he has done for black Americans. He appears to be referring to changing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by expanding the ability of insurers to provide less expensive — and less comprehensive — coverage.
The Affordable Care Act had reduced the number of uninsured black Americans by a third, thanks largely to the expansion of Medicaid. Trump’s administration supports a legal effort to eradicate the law entirely, erasing its provisions including the mandate that insurers cover those with preexisting conditions.
Historically black colleges and universities
Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, offered his own analysis of Trump’s claims about HBCU funding in a series of tweets on Tuesday.
“The President did sign the bill for [fiscal year 2020] which provided record HBCU funding,” Kimbrough wrote. “It was the result of bipartisan work in the Congress; the president simply signed it as part of the overall budget for the nation.”
Trump additionally signed the Future Act — passed by bipartisan voice votes in both chambers — providing additional financial support for the institutions by continuing a program started under George W. Bush. Signing this law, Kimbrough argued, mirrored an action taken by Obama after the funding stream was set to expire during his presidency.
At other times, Trump has claimed that he “saved” HBCUs. That’s not the case.
What hasn’t been done
What’s worth considering when evaluating Trump’s actions on behalf of black Americans is what he hasn’t done. There are any number of pieces of legislation or executive actions that could have been embraced by Trump but that he never addressed.
The recent protests centered on systemic racism in the criminal justice system offer a good example. Trump has repeatedly disparaged the protesters (claiming, last week, that many of those participating in the protests didn’t know why they were there) and conflated the protesters with people who engaged in criminal vandalism or looting.
Even the focus of his event on Tuesday, reforming police practices, focused not on black concerns but on ensuring that police were comfortable with his proposals.
“We’ve had the endorsement of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Union of Police Associations, Major County Sheriffs of America Association, National Association of Police Organizations, National District Attorneys Association, National Sheriffs Association, Sergeants Benevolent Association, and many others,” Trump said when introducing his executive order.
He did not mention any endorsements from activists on behalf of those concerned about how the police do their jobs.