The Congressional Black Caucus leadership team did not go to the White House to talk about urban carnage or April Ryan. Instead, over the course of more than a half-hour with the 45th president of the United States, they laid out the full spectrum of issues facing Africans Americans and what he could do about them—if he wanted to get past posturing.
To get Trump to focus like a laser, they reminded him of his time campaign trail speaking to adoring throngs of white people in small places with few black faces. He used to boast that Democratic candidates courted the black vote only to turn their backs on African Americans until the next election: Why not vote for him? “What do you have to lose?" he famously asked. So the CBC presented Trump with a new report, “We Have a Lot to Lose.”
The CBC regularly sends an agenda of key issues up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But they usually focus on the politics of working with the nation’s chief executive not drafting reports to fill the gaps in his education. The group’s biggest challenge of this sort came at its inception in 1971. Two years earlier, Richard Nixon had signed an executive order establishing an affirmative action policy for federal employees, earning the wrath of conservatives. Nixon had resolved never to speak with the group, but they called his bluff by boycotting his State of the Union address. The resulting media furor persuaded Nixon to give in. “If equality for all Americans is to be a reality, it must have the unequivocal commitment of the Chief Executive,” the group noted in the set of recommendations they handed the president.
After Nixon, the CBC’s relationships with presidents were less rocky. And then came Trump. He ignored the group’s January request for meeting. About five weeks after he asked veteran African American reporter Ryan if she knew any CBC members (or could arrange a meeting), the CBC got some face time from the man who blustered across the country with his appalling caricature of how nearly 46 million African Americans live their lives. This CBC meeting was almost 46 years to the day that the founding members of the caucus sat down with Nixon.
Clearly, this president needed some schooling and the CBC obliged.
— The CBC (@OfficialCBC) March 22, 2017
In their meeting with Trump, the group reeled off the major problems and a menu of solutions on issues ranging from voting rights, criminal-justice reform, and education, as well as lesser-known concerns like rural black poverty and how race plays into the siting of hazardous waste. On health care, the report pointed to the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for African Americans: The number of uninsured African Americans has dropped eight percentage points. Their solutions such as preserving Medicaid as is and warning against “reckless disruption” in the health-care marketplace echoed many of the same cautions that their white colleagues raised.
No one around the president, black or white, appears to have a grasp on any of the issues, much less nuances of the African American experience. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer scolds April Ryan for her shaking her head, while Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson compares slavery to immigration. For the initial effort in remedial education for the Trump administration, the CBC provided four-and-a-half succinct pages on slavery, America’s original sin; the Reconstruction; the Great Migration; the Depression; the New Deal; World War II; and the civil rights era. No black notables appear by name, although presumably Trump and his West Wing staff now know that abolitionist Frederick Douglass has been laid to rest in Rochester, New York. Trump expressed interest in future meetings with the CBC but they won’t be to discuss the finer points of American history, if they happen at all.
Getting issues and solutions in front of a president is an important step. But an “ask” is not a “get.” As obsessed as Trump is with inner city crime issues, supporting criminal-justice reforms does not appear to be high on his agenda. In high profile meetings with police officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions talks ominously about getting back to “tried and true, proven principles” of law enforcement. Administration officials rarely discuss police accountability, rehabilitation programs for ex-offenders, respecting state marijuana laws, or support for consent decrees such as the one Baltimore officials and the Justice Department recently signed to begin to repair the police-community relations by revolutionizing police tactics.
Any move by the CBC to align with Trump, even in areas where there are mutual interests, would pose problems heading into the 2018 election season. The progressive, anti-Trump group #WeWillReplaceYou that has vowed to run challengers against congressional Democrats willing to work with Trump issued an early challenge. Co-founder Jessica Pierce told BuzzFeed, “I don't know how there can be shared goals with a president who in two months has directly cut services and called for more financial cuts or the complete elimination of programs that protect the black people in the most need in this country.”
Trump is widely disliked among African Americans; his approval rating is a pitiful 13 percent. He has not come after African Americans in any sustained way yet, though his policy assaults will harm black citizens disproportionately. Based on Trump’s moves against Muslims, a group that includes many African Americans, and immigrants, black politicians know very well that some of their constituents could be the next targeted group.
The CBC may want to keep lines of communication open on issues like criminal justice, health care, and infrastructure; however, they get no bonus points for their diplomacy. Educating a president is no easy task, and some leaders are more challenging than others. Working with a difficult student like Trump is a risky political tactic for the Congressional Black Caucus. Like many classroom troublemakers, Trump knows what he loses if he ignores the CBC’s African American agenda: Exactly nothing.