One of the many challenges of the Trump presidency, especially for leaders who represent black people, is how much to play politics and proceed as if things are business as usual in a time that is not only very unusual, but marked by a sharp spike in unabashed racial hatred.
It's a challenge the heads of various historically black colleges and universities faced in February, when, after a visit to the White House and even a smiley Oval Office picture, they were left with an executive order moving the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the purview of the Department of Education to the White House—but no badly needed federal funds.
In Baltimore, City Council President Jack Young made his own trek to the White House on Tuesday. He didn't get any Trump face time, but he did meet with Reed Cordish, the Baltimore developer who is currently serving under presidential in-law Jared Kushner on the Office of American Innovation.
A Sun story on the meeting painted Young as eager to work with the White House and "pitching the city as a place where the administration could pilot programs designed to help struggling cities."
"My mouth and my mind was racing," Young is quoted as saying. "You don't get the opportunity to talk to senior staff in the White House, not like that."
I asked Young, via Twitter, why he'd consider looking for money from Kushner, given a story published in the New York Times Magazine back in May that found Kushner is, effectively, a litigious slumlord who has purchased thousands of run-down apartment units around the suburbs of Baltimore—not to mention the consistent racist overtures from the Trump administration.
"You're off by a mile," Young tweeted to me. "This meeting was 1) about advocating AGAINST the Trump budget, which would devastate Baltimore. We get more than $270M from the feds for programs run by Housing, Health, BPD, etc. 2) stressing the need for infrastructure investment in Baltimore City. The EPA consent decree has cost our city. The federal mandates need to come with funding Otherwise, we continue to pass along the costs to our citizens, many of whom can't afford it. If I get an opportunity to educate federal officials about how their proposals impact Baltimore and advocate for addtl spending, I'll do it."
In a phone interview Wednesday, the day after Young met with Cordish, Young's Chief of Staff, Lester Davis, offered more details on the meeting, which he said Cordish sought out, looking for way the Trump administration "would be helpful."
"We took him up on the offer and the first order of business, the first thing the council president discussed… was a dive into the proposed federal budget and how that budget would cut or endanger close to $300 million in grants, so primarily to the health department, health and human services, and also some grants to the police department," Davis said over the phone. "So just kind of walking through why that would be, just on its face, very harmful to the city of Baltimore and to its citizens, Reed was receptive to that and kind of took pretty good notes as we talked."
I asked Davis about the optics of meeting with an administration that has been so blatantly anti-minority and anti-people in need.
"Look, the president of the city council is an elected official and not an activist, and so I think that there are roles for activists, the city council president certainly does not agree with the rhetoric as it relates to the notion of what you just described," he said.
Young pitched a two-pronged case on the potential harms of the reduced budget, Davis said, and the benefits of "apprenticeship programs actually giving kids skills so that they can get meaningful work careers then we can have a conversation around that."
Davis said that he doesn't think it's a politician's job to reject a meeting with a source of power, even if it is the Trump administration. He and Young seemed to be putting a lot of faith in an administration that has talked a lot but accomplished very little.
For example, Davis also said that he and Cordish talked about policing reform—things like conflict mediation and diversion programs. I asked him if they discussed the fact that Baltimore was not one of the cities selected by the Department of Justice's National Public Safety Partnership. The news came out the same day, and means that the city will miss out on "enhanced federal involvement regarding gun violence, gangs, and drug trafficking," according to a statement issued by Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.
However, Lester Davis said he and Young didn't find out about that until they got back to Baltimore, so they didn't discuss it but plan on following up.
And although Davis rejected the notion of being an activist, he also sought to frame Young's actions as almost a form of protest—as if the act of showing up was a step in the right direction: "I think—and I don't want to put words in your mouth—but I think this notion that the president of the city council should somehow stand up and say, Well no, I'm not going to go and speak truth to power and I'm not going to tell you how you can actually be helpful, that's just not something that I think we're subscribing to."
Right now, as with most things Trump related, there's not really a timetable on how the improvements the men discussed will come, or even any real guarantee that they will come at all. He said Cordish was interested in turning the administration's attention to infrastructure, and away from the many distractions (a disastrously dangerous health bill, lying to and threatening the press, Russia collusion, Twitter, etc.) that the Trump administration has been dealing with.
Davis said that he'd like to see Baltimore on the receiving end of an infrastructure spending bill.
"We just had a steam pipe that blew up in downtown Baltimore yesterday so it's topical," he said. "I think a lot of it will depend on their timetable. So we went, took, I think, a couple hours out of the day, and we sat down with someone and laid out how they could be helpful to us and the ball is in their court and we'll see what happens."
Ideally, Davis said, Baltimore would get support similar to the kind that rural U.S. communities got a few years back, providing money to replace our crumbling streets and pipes. However, it's hard to imagine that Trump, who keeps close company with people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon, would prioritize urban communities at all. When he was campaigning, Trump liked to point to black cities like Baltimore and Chicago as dark, troubled scapegoats for his lily-white crowds of supporters, so why would he help fix them and lose that scapegoat?
Before our call ended, I circled back to Young's comment about the president of city council not being an activist. Why isn't Young isn't an activist, I asked, when there are people in Baltimore so desperately in need? He said this:
"So when I say he's not an activist I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion. Sure…a large part of the job involves activism. So [Young] wrote an op-ed around the health care issue, the health commissioner has been very outspoken around that about what kind of danger and harm that would do to our city. [Young has been] active and outspoken about our investment in youth and crime prevention, so yes, there are elements of activism. When I say that he's not an activist, what I mean is … you could have a person or an individual who maybe does educational policy reform or something like that who says, 'You know what I'm not going to sit down with Betsy DeVos, we have nothing to talk about. I don't like the direction it's going,' or 'I'm not going to sit down with a senior official.'"
Activism and leadership are about more than writing letters, though. It's about what you do with the power you are given and how you represent the constituents who are most in harm's way. What happens after you have your seat at the table? Has anyone successfully convinced a racist not to be racist?
"I think that when you are an elected representative, you have a duty...to go first to explain—to speak truth to power—to explain in a very clear and forceful way why you think someone, the action of someone is going to do us wrong," Davis said.
Something that Young (and Davis, for that matter) may want to consider: Wednesday the Congressional Black Caucus rejected an opportunity to meet with Trump, saying that they have not seen any evidence that the president means the black community any good.
"The CBC, and the millions of people we represent, have a lot to lose under your Administration," wrote caucus chair Cedric L. Richmond. "I fail to see how a social gathering would benefit the policies we advocate for."