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Trump's Racial Rhetoric on Crime Puts Him in a Political Bind

Trump has tried to walk a delicate balance — praising police while frequently highlighting violence in inner cities.
Image: Donald Trump, Don King
Boxing promoter Don King holds up the hand of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the Pastors Leadership Conference at New Spirit Revival Center, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)Evan Vucci / AP

Donald Trump on Tuesday declared that the African-American community is in the "worst shape it's ever been in this country" in front of a predominately white audience in Kenansville, N.C. At the same time, just about an hour and half away in Charlotte, mostly black protesters were angrily clashing with law enforcement over the controversial police shooting of yet another person of color, Keith Lamont Scott.

Both of the scenes addressed the phenomenon of the violence against black bodies — but the voices appear to be coming from diametrically opposed directions.

Trump has made "law and order" a centerpiece of his campaign, so much so that he hyped the shootings of police officers in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech and he has recently garnered the endorsement of the nation's largest police union, the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump has tried to walk a delicate balance — praising police and lamenting that they have been hamstrung by political correctness while frequently highlighting violence in inner cities, suggesting that somehow the current administration's policies are an indirect cause.

Still, he has rarely spoken about a specific case of alleged police violence. Trump did tweet about the tragic accidental shooting death of NBA star Dywane Wade's cousin by gang members last month, but initially only to suggest that it would lead African-American voters to support him in November.

Trump tweeted on Wednesday that the shooting in Charlotte, and a second controversial police shooting of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, in Tulsa (captured on video) were "tragic," but he didn't elaborate on why or what steps he would take as president to address alleged excessive police force.

That same day, Trump addressed a Pastors and Leadership Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, co-headlined by Dr. Darrell Scott, one of his most prominent African-American surrogates and a board member on the National Diversity Coalition from Trump. NBC News reached out to Bruce LeVell, the executive director of Trump's diversity coalition, for comment on his recent remarks, but he declined.

However, at the event in Cleveland, Trump elaborated on his response to the shooting in Tulsa specifically without mentioning Crutcher by name. After making it clear that he is a "tremendous believer in law enforcement," he conceded that sometimes there is an officer that makes a "mistake ... or that chokes."

"I must tell you, I watched the shooting in particular in Tulsa, and that man was hands up, that man went to the car hands up, put his hand on the car—I mean, to me, it looked like he did everything you're supposed to do, and he looked like a really good man," Trump told the audience, while admitting that he may have been swayed by a televised interview with the Crutcher family.

"This young officer, I don't know what she was thinking but I am very, very troubled by that," he added in reference to Betty Shelby, the officer who killed Crutcher and is currently on administrative leave. "Did she get scared? Was she choking, what happened? People that choke, they can't be doing what they're doing."

In those same remarks, Trump's touted his endorsements from police unions, which only highlighted the awkward position he was in.

Related: Trump 'Diversity Coalition' Holds Hectic First Meeting

NAACP president and CEO Cornell Brooks was unimpressed with Trump's comments, which he described as "sympathy without substance."

"Rather than Mr. Trump theorizing about whether an officer 'choked,' we call on him to talk about de-escalation techniques, training, and what he would do in terms of setting standards of policy as commander-in-chief," Brooks told NBC News. "When it comes to 21st century policing we must move towards a guardian model rather than a warrior model. This 'law and order' language is a warrior stance, without guidance."

"The list of what we don't know [of Trump's policies] exceeds the length and the degree of sympathy of his tweets," he added.

Trump's campaign website doesn't feature a single detailed plan about how or if he would reform policing. Instead, voters can find a 43-second video from February under the banner "Law Enforcement Respect" in which the candidate addresses the camera, and argues that police officers aren't treated with enough deference.

In the video, Trump alludes to "bad apples" on police forces, but does not offer any policy proposals. However, later on Wednesday, in a town hall aired on Fox News, Trump floated the concept of expanding the practice of "stop-and-frisk," which has proven wildly unpopular in communities of color and was ruled unconstitutional in 2013, nationwide.

"On the one hand he is signaling to uncomfortable voters who may fear that he is racist, and on the other hand he is trafficking in assumptions and stereotypes about how some white Americans react to policy," said MSNBC contributor and Princeton University Prof. Eddie Glaude. "He doesn't make the kind of specific claims that a Giuliani will make, but he will invoke 'I will bring law and order.""

Glaude believes that Trump could persuade some disaffected minority voters, who are feeling vulnerable and desire more police protection, but the reality for many communities of color is that law enforcement presence isn't the problem, their policies are.

And Trump has both implied that police don't go far enough (he's told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that he'd let "tough" cops loose on Chicago) and derided them for following fundamental principles of due process in the recent arrest of the New York-New Jersey terrorist bombing suspect.

As far as Glaude is concerned, Clinton hasn't fared much better, offering police reform and community investment proposals he feels are dated at best, and ineffectual at worst.

"We have to have a broader understanding of safety that goes beyond locking people up and putting more cops on the street," he said "We need to speak to what's at the heart of the matter -- that white people are more valued than others in this country and the extent to which we refuse to acknowledge that."

"As long as we view race as a zero-sum game, we will never address this issue," he added.

Related: Trump Reacts To Police Shootings, Don King Uses N-word

Meanwhile, with his culturally insensitive descriptions of uneducated, crime-ridden black communities, black surrogates who often go off script with less-than-stellar results, and condescending "what do you have to lose?" riff pitched at black voters, Trump appears to be dramatically disconnected from real-life concerns of African-Americans in ways that, someone like biracial San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- who the GOP nominee has criticized repeatedly -- is not.

Although Kaepernick is not without a vocal chorus of critics (and as of late, the subject of death threats) his silent protest of the national anthem before NFL games, inspired by frustration he feels with systematic racism in this country, has begun to catch on with his peers.

And in the aftermath of the Scott shooting in Charlotte -- where officers targeted the wrong man as a suspect — and Tulsa — where video contradicts initial police claims of an uncooperative Crutcher -- there is now further evidence that there is significance to his stance.

"American football is becoming a literal theater of protests, kind of a cinematic display of the conscience of the country," said Brooks. "They are making a statement, not necessarily of disloyalty or lack of patriotism, but rather on what the flag stands for."

Still, their efforts will be toothless, according to Brooks, unless voters go to polls and make their positions on policing known, not just in the presidential race but in the elections of mayors, governors and local sheriffs, too.

Brooks, who once had a gun pulled on him by police just for reaching for his glasses, believes that the Crutcher shooting could potentially be a game-changer but he has mixed emotions about the fact that it took fairly incontrovertible video evidence to give his loss of life credence, and that with or without the footage most adult black men in America feel they must comply or die when confronted by law enforcement.

For white Americans, some of whom remain skeptical about allegations of implicit bias and racial profiling, Brooks believes they must ask themselves a fundamental question: "At what point is human behavior punishable by fatal violence?"