In his effort at transformation from birther-in-chief to Republican champion of African-Americans, Donald J. Trump claims the Democratic Party has left predominantly black neighborhoods — I assume he means city neighborhoods — in shambles. He asserts that Democrats have "failed and betrayed" African-Americans, despite being the political party most supportive of minorities, civil rights and urban life over the last 50 years.
"They've taken African-Americans for granted," Trump said last month. "They just assume they'll get their support. They've taken advantage of the African-American citizen. It's time to give the Democrats some competition for these votes. ... I'm asking for the vote of every African-American citizen struggling in our country today who wants a different and much better future."
Trump's plea: "What do you have to lose?"
In North Carolina, Trump said: "Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before. Ever, ever, ever." This broad-stroke characterization reveals a detached, suburban vision of city neighborhoods, and it overlooks a lot of history, starting with slavery, and recent socioeconomic gains. It's hard to believe Trump has spent any time at all in working-class communities of color.
In Monday night's debate, he went at it again, referring to crime-plagued minority neighborhoods as "hell," a rare expression of empathy. The problem is, Trump's solution is to bring back stop-and-frisk policing, and at a time when police and community leaders are trying to rebuild trust and move away from practices, such as stop-and-frisk and zero-tolerance, that targeted minorities disproportionately.
It shows what a tin ear he has when it comes to urban policy, proposing more of the aggressive measures that soured police-community relations in many city neighborhoods and ultimately undercut the effectiveness of law enforcement.
But here's the thing: This election-year pitch of Trump's to African-Americans rings hollow, given the record of the party he represents. Democrats might have failed to cure urban ills, but at least they've been in the game. Currently 25 of the nation's 30 largest cities have Democratic mayors.
Trump's dump on Democrats reminds me of a refrain of several readers of The Baltimore Sun after the death of Freddie Gray and unrest that hit West Baltimore on the day of his funeral in the spring of 2015. It goes like this:
Democrats have failed Baltimore. They left its majority-minority population with a high rate of homicide and homelessness, poverty and vacant houses, low-performing schools and a high property tax rate. The writers said the people of Baltimore would be better off if they gave Republican leadership a chance, and they cited Maryland's governor, Larry Hogan, as the kind of man who could make a difference here.
"Give Larry Hogan time to help clean out the city of Baltimore," a reader named Beth Lund wrote me. "These crooked politicians have played these poor people in Baltimore for far too long."
"Since 1967 Baltimore has had seven mayors, all Democrat," wrote Mark Wilson. "As far as I can see Baltimore has done a great job of voting in their own problems."
"No one party has all the answers," wrote Rick Franz, "but after the better part of a century, the Democrats have proven they surely don't."
As I've pointed out in the past, blaming Democratic politicians for all that ails the city is easy because it's your only choice. The city has not had a Republican mayor since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin left the office in 1967, as the era of white flight began in earnest. Since then, their power base having shifted to the suburbs, Republicans showed little interest in city life. Meanwhile, Baltimore went through big changes: the exodus of a third of its post-World War II population, the shrinking of its tax base, the loss of industry, decades of drug addiction and concentrated poverty.
Curious if Republicans were ever a power in the city, I turned to Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and author of a forthcoming political history of Baltimore.
"Prior to McKeldin, the city had several Republican mayors," Crenson says. "The city must have had a substantial Republican voting bloc. Until the Depression, most black voters were reliably Republican."
Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate for president, carried the city in the 1928 election.
"But that's ancient history," says Crenson. "The people who blame Democrats for the current condition of American cities forget that cities are subject to state oversight and heavily dependent on state aid. Most states are controlled by Republicans. Maryland usually isn't one of them, but no matter who controlled Annapolis, the city was pretty consistently treated like a colonial possession."
So, it's simplistic to blame the city's slide on one-party rule. At the same time, I agree with my suburban readers that one-party rule is not healthy. Republicans, therefore, ought to consider moving to Baltimore to help repopulate the city. Otherwise, please spare us the long-distance lectures about how the Democrats have failed.