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2020 presidential candidates vying for African American vote talk reparations, economics

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks to black female activists at the Power Rising Summit in New Orleans on Feb. 22, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

As Democrats eying their party’s 2020 presidential nomination zero in on African Americans as a key voting bloc, President Donald Trump offered a preview of the argument he intends to make to black communities on the campaign trail at a White House event honoring African American History Month Thursday.

“Under my administration, the African American poverty rate has fallen to its lowest level,” he told a cheering audience of supporters, pastors, and government officials. “And if you think about that, that's a special category. The poverty rate for African Americans is the best it's ever been. The lowest level it's ever achieved.”

Looking ahead to his debates with the eventual Democratic nominee, President Trump highlighted African American unemployment, which hit an all-time low last year.

“How do they beat us on the debate stand when we say we have the best unemployment numbers ever?” he asked. “Right?”

Trump also celebrated the December passage of the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill championed for months by his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“We worked with conservatives and liberals, and those in the middle,” Trump said. “We worked with a lot of people and we got it done. Nobody thought this -- you know, they've been trying to get this done for 25 years, but we got it done -- criminal justice reform.”

Republicans say Trump has a convincing economic pitch to make to black voters if current trends hold up, and they warn Democrats dismiss those gains at their peril.

“I think there’s an interesting case to be made and I hope the campaign is able to leverage what has been done, particularly for black, Hispanic and all blue-collar workers in the country,” said Albert Eisenberg, a Republican political consultant working on LGBT and urban issues. “Anyone scoffing at the economic numbers or not applauding them really is full of it, in my opinion.”

Looking at polling data and election results from the midterm elections and special elections around the country since Trump took office, Henry Fernandez, a principle at the African American Research Collaborative, is highly skeptical economic data will outweigh concerns about Trump’s rhetoric, his policies, and his judicial appointments. A poll his group conducted in November found only 8 percent of black voters felt Trump has had a positive impact on blacks, while 48 percent chose the option “Trump is a racist whose policies are intended to hurt blacks.”

“I cannot articulate more squarely how unpopular Trump is among African American voters,” Fernandez said. “Do I think sentencing reform is an important thing? Absolutely. Do I think that’s going to make up for the attacks on civil rights and the step back from reforms to policing?”

According to Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, Trump deserves some credit for shepherding the bipartisan First Step Act through a Republican-led Congress that had bristled at such reforms in the past. He is less convinced the president can claim responsibility for continued improvement in employment numbers that were rising when he took office, and he noted significant gaps in income and wealth between races persist.

“If we’re really going to tackle inequality, we’ve got to close those gaps,” he said.

Democratic candidates for president are aggressively presenting themselves as the ones best suited to address those gaps, and one way they are beginning to discuss doing that is with reparations for slavery and the systemic discrimination that has put African Americans at a disadvantage since it was abolished.

“We have got to recognize that and give people a lift up, and there are a number of ways to do that,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said on radio show “The Breakfast Club” last week.

While Harris is one of several candidates who have made clear in recent days they support reparations, what exactly they mean by that is less clear. Only Marianne Williamson, an author and spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey, appears to be explicitly talking about the government making direct payments, and even she is only talking about a 10-year, $100-billion investment.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro acknowledged he has no idea what his reparations program would entail, but he would “look at establishing an effort to figure that out.”

“What I believe is that its fundamentally worth that because of the injustice. What that would look like, I can’t say that I have that all figured out, but I do believe the country would be better off if we were to do that,” he told The Root.

Other Democrats have spoken broadly of systemic and structural changes intended to redress the inequality caused by slavery and Jim Crow-era government policies. On “The Breakfast Club,” Harris backed “some type of reparations” but, in the same breath, she cited policies like her middle-class tax cut plan and support for historically black colleges and universities.

“I’m serious about taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities,” Harris said in a statement to The New York Times that did not offer additional specifics.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., offered vague support for reparations in principle as well.

“We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences, including undermining the ability of black families to build wealth in America for generations. We need systemic, structural changes to address that,” Warren told The Times.

Harris and Warren’s campaigns did not respond to requests for clarifications of their stances on reparations Friday.

Other candidates pointed to policies like Sen. Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” for low-income families and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s support for allowing banking at post offices that would benefit communities of color but are not directly intended to compensate those harmed by slavery and Jim Crow.

Republican critics have already seized upon the Democrats’ comments on reparations as the latest evidence of the party’s leftward lurch, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoting a segment of his show to it Thursday night. Kevin Williamson of the National Review dismissed the proposals as a political ploy that ignores the real work necessary to provide justice and prosperity for African Americans.

“Pursuing that reform agenda would be a blessing to the nation as a whole, and it is to the nation as a whole that national politics must in the end address itself, even as we take into account the unique situation of African Americans,” Williamson wrote. “But that is not how you win a Democratic primary.”

According to Eisenberg, Democrats ambiguously embracing reparations have yet to grapple with the logistical questions the concept raises: how do they deal with mixed-race descendants of slaves or with white and black Americans whose ancestors came to the country after the Civil War?

“It’s just a completely unruly ‘policy.’ The idea this is somehow the step forward--it’s so backward-looking--is just ludicrous,” he said.

Eisenberg expects such ideas will be rejected by more than just white audiences, potentially coming across as patronizing to socially moderate black voters as well.

“I think just the rush to be as ‘progressive’ and liberal and academic as possible is going to alienate a lot of people... Anybody looking at them will think, ‘I pay taxes too. Whose taxes are going to go up for this?’” he said.

Fernandez said it is too early to tell whether reparations will be a major issue in the Democratic primaries, but black voters did not mention it when asked open-ended questions about what issues are important to them during polls in the 2018 election cycle. He did not expect the Republican criticism to deter candidates from talking about it, though.

“I don’t think it ever makes sense for Democrats to look to what Republicans are saying to determine their positions on issues,” he said.

Although he observed being attacked by Fox News primetime hosts is probably an asset in the Democratic primary, Tillery acknowledged programs that redistribute wealth to promote racial equality will inevitably face skepticism from white voters.

“Of course that’s going to be controversial,” he said. “That’s going to be opposed. There’s going to be huge backlash, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it.”

Reparations have never polled well with the general public, but Tillery noted younger generations appear to be at least open to the idea. A Marist Poll conducted in 2016 found 68 percent of Americans oppose reparations but 40 percent of millennials supported the idea and 11 percent were undecided.

“This may be a non-starter for boomer voters, for white male voters, for voters above 40, but the reality is those people aren’t voting Democratic anyway,” he said.

Trump’s pitch to African American voters in 2016 was “What do you have to lose?” Eisenberg admitted that framing was somewhat off-putting, but as voters across the board shift away from traditional political parties, he thinks the message has resonated to some degree.

“If you look at black voters and their allegiance to the Democratic Party, it is weakening,” he said.

According to 2016 exit polls, Trump won about 8 percent of the black vote, less than President George W. Bush got in 2004 but better than John McCain and Mitt Romney did against Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. African American turnout was down overall without Obama on the ballot, and that could be a problem for Democrats again in 2020.

“Regardless of who the nominee is, you offset that with mobilization,” said Andra Gillespie, a professor political science at Emory University and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America.” She suggested stronger get-out-the-vote efforts by nominee Hillary Clinton in places like Philadelphia and Detroit could have helped overcome Trump’s slim margins of victory in key states 2016.

Multiple polls have indicated Trump’s support among black voters, and black men in particular, has risen since the 2016 election, but numbers vary on how much. Days before the midterm elections, Trump cited a Rasmussen Reports poll showing his approval rating among black voters at 40 percent, but most other surveys over the last year put it much lower, between around 10 and 20 percent.

“I wouldn’t expect there to be this widespread defection, even among African American men,” Gillespie said.

In its pre-midterm poll, the African American Research Collaborative found 13 percent of black voters in battleground districts said Trump made them feel proud, but 83 percent said he made them feel angry. In the same poll, 90 percent of black respondents said they supported Democratic House candidates.

“At this point, I think it’s fair to say he is a catalyzing factor in black turnout and that turnout is oppositional to him,” Fernandez said.

Eisenberg recognized it is a steep uphill climb, but he sees an opening if Trump and Republicans are willing to go into African American communities, speak to voters, and understand their concerns. If they engage, they can offer an alternative to Democrats’ increasingly liberal stances on education, economic policy, and policing.

“First, you have to start talking,” he said, “and I think both parties are guilty of this. They rush to their base and moderates are kind of left out.”

President Trump has not yet engaged in that kind of outreach, and he may find unreceptive audiences if he does. According to the African American Research Collaborative, 85 percent of black women and 81 percent of black men have felt disrespected by Trump, and 89 percent of black women and 83 percent of black men believe his statements and policies will set back racial progress.

“They do not want Trump and they do not want the country to fall further behind on race relations and civil rights... They feel he’s turning back the hands of time to particularly awful periods in American history,” Fernandez said.

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