Recently, Donald Trump has spent a lot of time talking about black people.
Whether it’s intended to demonstrate to white voters that he isn’t racist or to signal exactly the opposite, Trump has set about diagnosing the problems in black and Latino neighborhoods around the country. And he sees something awful. Trump’s description is incredibly imprecise — denigrating communities of color, even as he attempts to solicit their support. Based on his description of what it means to live in black spaces in America — “Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats” — it’s likely Trump doesn’t know much about black people.
If he did, he might know that although racialized poverty and wealth disparities in America do exist, most black people are not, in fact, poor: The poverty rate for African-Americans in 2012 was 27.2. He might know that, at 16.9 per 100,000, the rate of firearm-related deaths for African-Americans in 2014 is tragically and unacceptably high, but it is not indicative of a war zone where all black people are subject to being gunned down when they step out on their front porches in the morning. He might know that black people do, in fact, have porches, because despite persistent housing discrimination, 41.7 percent of black Americans still manage to own their own homes. He might know that, although racial disparities persist in mass incarceration, according to 2014 Justice Department data, 94 percent of black males ages 30 to 39 were not in prison. No doubt, African-Americans trail the national averages in any number of metrics, but black life in this country isn’t the dystopia he depicts.
As I watch Trump’s ugly attempts to reach black and Latino voters with his strident “What do you have to lose?” refrain — inaccurately characterizing black and brown America as a monolithic hellscape — I can’t pretend his kind of thinking is new or unique. Trump’s reasoning about race and inequality is only a sensationalized version of how race is too often understood by most white people. And his vision reflects the day-to-day choices made by many Americans, isolating themselves from black people based on the implied notion that proximity to blackness is bad.
White parents, for example, assert that they care most about academics when selecting schools for their children. But as studies that control for educational programming and academic outcomes show, parents often use race as an indicator of school quality. In one study, just a 2 percent increase in the number of black students in the school population correlated with a parental perception that school quality had declined, even when objective evidence contradicted that perception.
Or take white flight: Whites, studies show, prefer to live in communities with lower levels of diversity, assigning higher value to white neighborhoods that are otherwise identical to black neighborhoods, even after controlling for class indicators such as condition of homes or lot size. Given the choice between mixed but ultimately majority-white neighborhoods and all-white neighborhoods, whites selected the latter. In short, anti-black sentiments drive white residential preferences.
These day-to-day assumptions about black deficit also inform policy prescriptions for addressing inequality. When addressing racialized disparities in poverty, for example, policymakers will overlook labor-market collapses or disparities in educational opportunities, zeroing in, instead, on what they describe as a “culture” of laziness.
Similarly, rental assistance programs often take it as a given that the potential for economic stability in white neighborhoods necessarily outweighs the loss of community and belonging in black ones. Although liberal advocates for these sorts of initiatives are laudably attempting to address economic isolation, thinking about economic mobility this way assumes that communities of color have little to offer and increases the likelihood that opportunities to support them, instead of breaking them up, will be missed.
In education, our seemingly neutral standardized testing regimes reflect a presumption of intractable black terribleness: The problem lies always with children of color, who must be tested and remediated, no matter the structural obstacles that limit their access to equal educational opportunities.
To be black in America is to be put at a disadvantage, not because of inherent inferiority but because being raced as black increases the likelihood that obstacles will be placed in your path. In the navigation of our daily lives, however, we make decisions about where to live, learn, work and socialize as if inherent inferiority is, indeed, the reason for racial disparities. It’s all too easy to distance ourselves from Trump’s caustic language, concluding that he doesn’t represent us. But how many of us take for granted the racial segregation in our workplaces, public schools and neighborhoods, never once stopping to consider how the whiteness or nonwhiteness of those spaces informs our perceptions of safety and success? Trump’s clunky, offensive outreach last week, then, is only a more extreme version of the beliefs many of us — left, right and center — already hold and frequently put into practice.
Osamudia James is a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.