The protests in Charlotte, North Carolina and the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture over the last week inspired complicated, sophisticated discussions about black Americans and their status in America today.
Donald Trump appears to have not tuned in to these events or the broader national dialogue about racial issues over the past two years.
In Monday’s debate, he sounded like a man who had stopped reading the news about black Americans in 1987. He said it was “hell” to live in some cities in America, argued crime rates in black neighborhoods are so high that “you walk down the street, you get shot,” called for the return of “stop and frisk” policing, warned of “gangs roaming the street” and praised himself for helping open a private club in Palm Beach, Florida during the 1990's that had “no discrimination against African-Americans, against Muslims.”
In the debate, Trump correctly noted the very high rate of shootings and murders in Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 2,800 people were shot in Chicago in the first eight months of this year. There were 487 homicides.
But Chicago is in many ways an outlier. According to FBI data, there were 20,675 murders nationally in 1988, compared to 15,696 in 2015. In Washington, D.C., there were 162 murders in 2015, compared to 369 in 1988. And this decline in overall murders came despite a huge population growth over those two decades. The nation's murder rate in 1988 was 8.4 murders per 100,000 people in 1988, compared to 4.9 per 100,000 in 2015.
"While crime did increase overall last year, 2015 still represented the third-lowest year for violent crime in the past two decades," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Monday.
American cities are not the crime-ridden places that Trump described. In fact, the revival of major cities is one of the defining stories of American public policy over the last two decades. Washington, D.C. and New York City in particular are increasingly both safe and prosperous. Whites increasingly opt to live in those cities, as opposed to nearby suburbs, often moving into neighborhoods that had been heavily-black before.
In part because of this decline in crime, many Republicans are rethinking both current and past policies. Conservatives like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul now argue that the war on drugs and some of anti-crime measures of the 1980's and 1990's unfairly targeted African-Americans.
Integrating a private club in 1995 was hardly revolutionary then and sounded strange for a presidential candidate to brag about in 2016.
By viewing racial issues in this outdated way, Trump is in some ways denying the country a national debate about how racial policy and policing should change now. Hillary Clinton is offering an agenda that is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party and resembles what President Obama has done in office. She wants to increase training for police officers, particularly in combating implicit bias. She is calling for more community policing. She supports expanded government funding for childcare, universal pre-kindergarten education and large subsidies for college attendance, policies that don’t directly target blacks but will disproportionately benefit them.
At the same time, Clinton is rejecting more radical policy steps. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund wants the federal government to stop sending money to local police departments unless they require officers to go through racial bias training and collect data on arrest and use of force broken down by race. The award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has suggested blacks deserve economic reparations. A coalition of groups working on racial inequality called the Movement for Black Lives says the federal government should spend less money funding police and prisons and divert that money to education and employment programs.
Clinton does not support those ideas.
But Trump’s proposals are so out of step with current realities that they are not in truth serious ideas. It is very unlikely major cities will return to stop and frisk policing practices, after a federal judge condemned New York City's use of that strategy in a 2013 ruling.
Trump's focus on crime ignores a bigger challenge for African-Americans: economics. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the median black household income was about $43,300 in 2014, while white household income was about $71,300.The average net worth of a white household was $144,200, compared to $11,200 for a black household.
As work by Coates and others has shown, this wealth gap can be explained in part by housing policies that discriminated against African-Americans. Trump, in a series of exchanges on racial issues during the debate in which he repeatedly noted the number of shootings in Chicago, did not make a single reference to the enduring legacy of racial discrimination.
Trump’s big idea to improve education for blacks is school vouchers, which have been abandoned even by many Republicans who argue that charter schools and greater efforts to improve existing public schools may be more effective.
Trump’s backward looking approach on race is striking, in part because he rejects GOP orthodoxy on other issues. Most elite Republicans support immigration reform that creates a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, free-trade agreements with other nations, and reductions in spending for Social Security and Medicare. Trump has disavowed all of these stances.
But in the era of a black president, cameras showing police violence against African-Americans and a rising black middle-class, Trump sounds like Richard Nixon running for president in 1970's or Rudy Giuliani running for mayor of New York in the 1980's.
Politically, this may be smart, as Trump appears to be on a path to being the most popular candidate in recent memory among white men who don’t have college degrees. And Trump’s birtherism may have already cost him the votes of Americans of all races who are deeply interested in racial issues anyway.
But it was striking to hear a candidate in 2016 speak about race and black Americans in this antiquated way.