While President Trump claims to have done more for the black community than any president save Abraham Lincoln, his record has undeniably fallen short of the Great Emancipator’s. Trump’s four years in office have been marked by unprecedented political polarization, heightened racial tensions, inflammatory rhetoric, and outbreaks of violence. In terms of policy, the President has done little more than make hyperbolic claims about his administration’s achievements. Though black unemployment did fall to a historical low pre-pandemic, these gains have since reversed, and the white-black unemployment gap is on the rise. Additionally, the median income of black households has fallen below peak levels in 2000. This is quite alarming given both the massive money supply increases and the real growth of the economy during the intervening two decades. On the other hand, Trump did sign the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill to reduce recidivism rates. He has maintained funding for historically black colleges and has worked with members of the black community (most notably Ice Cube) on his Platinum Plan for economic empowerment. Overall, his policy achievements have been minimal, his rhetoric divisive, and his actions largely symbolic, resulting in a C+ grade on racial relations.
The administration got off to a rough start when white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville for the 2017 Unite the Right Rally. One such self-identified white supremacist drove his car through a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring nineteen. In the aftermath of this violence, Trump condemned white supremacy but also praised the “very fine people” on both sides. Needless to say, Trump’s equivocal response did not help the situation and is a clear example of his divisive rhetoric on race relations.
This past May, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin led to a summer of protests against police brutality. Throughout these events, President Trump characterized the Black Lives Matter organization as extremist, anti-family and, Marxist, falsely claimed that most BLM protests were violent, and called the aforementioned protestors “thugs.” Rather than engaging in a productive dialogue with the protestors, Trump focused his attention on a small minority of individuals who used the protests as an excuse to loot stores, destroy property, and generally sow chaos. While condemning violence is a must, the vast majority of said peaceful protestors raise legitimate concerns that need to be listened to and engaged with, rather than ignored and dismissed.
As President, Trump did little to address the root causes of the protests. The video of George Floyd’s murder starkly demonstrates that brutal and counterproductive tactics are still used by police and prescribed as a general policy. Under Trump, no significant policing reforms were proposed or undertaken. Structural inequities in the justice system were left unaddressed, and President Trump ordered federal agencies to stop diversity and anti-bias training. At the same time, Trump appointed a smaller percentage of non-white federal judges than any president since George H.W. Bush while appointing more than a quarter of all active federal judges. Though his fiery rhetoric elicits a more immediate and visceral response, Trump’s judicial appointments and executive branch policies may leave deeper and more lasting imprints on the American justice system.
Though Trump was certainly no Andrew Johnson or Woodrow Wilson in terms of race relations, he leaves the Presidency with the country more divided than at any time since the Civil War. According to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll, two-thirds of Americans say that Trump has increased racial tensions in recent months. Looking at his record, it’s hard to disagree.