It was a remarkable assertion from Trump — who long stoked a false conspiracy theory questioning whether Obama was born in America, who launched a presidential campaign that exacerbated racial tensions, who has danced around denouncing white supremacist groups and who has encouraged law enforcement officers to rough up racial justice protesters.
Trump then tried to talk about something other than race, like how he thinks Biden is “a corrupt politician” and not “this innocent baby.”
The performance underscored the president’s lack of interest in having a sustained conversation about race — the sort that millions of Americans are forcing themselves to have this year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis in May and a pandemic that has illuminated the country’s deep racial inequities.
But moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News wouldn’t let him change the topic.
“President Trump, I want to stay on the issue of race,” said Welker, whose mother is Black and father is Native American. “President Trump, we’re talking about race right now, and I do want to stay on the issue of race.”
When Welker began the series of questions, she asked each candidate what they would say to Black parents who have to have “the talk” with their children in hopes of preventing their deaths at the hands of police.
“It happens regardless of class and income, parents who feel they have no choice but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin,” Welker said. “I want you to speak directly to these families. Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?”
Biden went first and said he did, referencing his daughter’s career as a social worker and his childhood in a neighborhood that was “90 percent African American.” He echoed the sentiments shared in many conversations across the country.
“I never had to tell my daughter if she’s pulled over . . . for a traffic stop, put both hands on top of the wheel and don’t reach for the glove box because someone may shoot you,” Biden said. “But a Black parent, no matter how wealthy or how poor they are, has to teach their child: When you’re walking down the street, don’t have a hoodie on. . . . If you get pulled over: ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ Hands on top of the wheel.”
When it was Trump’s turn, he said he understood why Black parents fear for their children — “I do,” he said — then pointed to Biden’s involvement in the 1994 crime bill that critics say led to a large increase in the number of Black men incarcerated, which is one reason many Black Lives Matter activists have been skeptical of Biden. Later in the debate, Biden would say, as he has before, that the legislation was “a mistake.”
Trump then declared: “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump . . . with the exception of Abraham Lincoln — possible exception — but the exception of Abraham Lincoln. Nobody has done what I’ve done. Criminal justice reform. Obama and Joe didn’t do it. I don’t even think they tried because they had no chance at doing it.”
Trump listed things that he has done for the Black community — including, he says, reforming the criminal justice system, investing in minority businesses and saving historically Black colleges and universities. Few analysts would agree that the list would constitute the most a president has done for Black Americans since Lincoln oversaw the end of slavery.
Biden pushed back, noting that Trump said in 2000 that the crime bill wasn’t putting enough people into jail and that Trump advocated for the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” a group of Black teenagers falsely convicted of the 1989 rape of a White jogger in New York.
Asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump declared: “I am the least racist person in this room. . . . I am the least racist person. I can’t even see the audience because it’s so dark, but I don’t care who’s in the audience. I’m the least racist person in this room.”
Biden again pushed back against the president’s blanket assertions.
“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history.” Biden said. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one. Started off his campaign coming down the escalator saying he’s getting rid of those Mexican rapists. He’s banned Muslims because they’re Muslims. . . . This guy is a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
Trump didn’t understand the reference to Lincoln, seeming to think Biden was accusing him of calling himself Lincoln.
“I said not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I’ve done for the Black community,” Trump said. “I did not say I’m Abraham Lincoln. I said: Not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I’ve done for the Black community.”