In 1861, the United States Civil War began in my home state of South Carolina, when forces loyal to the Confederacy surrounded Fort Sumter and attacked the federal troops stationed there. Yesterday, we saw a sort of reversal to this story, as the federal government laid siege to a small part of South Carolina. Specifically, the Trump administration invaded Benedict College, an HBCU located in the state capital, Columbia, in order for the President to give a speech and receive an award on campus.
I use the language of invasion because, other than the ten (yes, 10!) or so students actually invited to the event, the rest of Benedict College was put on lockdown. Fearing an angry reception and possibly protests from the student body (both reasonable assumptions), the school cooperated with the Secret Service to implement pretty drastic measures. Classes were cancelled that afternoon. Students were required to stay in their residence halls, and even served lunch inside their dorms to prevent them from having to venture out.
Meanwhile, the administration bused in supporters who politely listened to Trump’s speech in front of the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, the sponsor of the event that was being hosted at Benedict. In said speech, by the way, Trump actually claimed that he could identify with the black and brown people of this country who have been disproportionately incarcerated because he is facing impeachment inquiries, which in his mind are surely equivalent miscarriages of justice; I mean…dang. Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris initially backed out of her own appearance at the forum after learning of Trump’s award and hearing about the students’ treatment (if you guessed that Trump responded with a nasty personal attack against Harris over Twitter, congratulations, you’ve been paying attention); Senator Harris eventually showed up and participating on Saturday after the Second Step organization dropped out as sponsor.
Given the extraordinary measures the Administration and the college had to go to in order to hold this event and the fallout that followed, why on earth did anyone think this was a good idea? The local Greenville News described the context of President Trump’s visit:
At the event, Trump was named the winner of the Bipartisan Justice Award. The award from the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, a nonprofit organization founded by 20 black Republicans and 20 black Democrats in 2015, is given annually to a public servant who has demonstrated the ability to work across the aisle to achieve meaningful progress in reforming the criminal justice system, according to the White House.
Trump was honored for leadership in the passage of the First Step Act, which expands opportunities for elderly inmates to get released, increases the amount of good-time credit inmates can receive and has provisions to help inmates transition back into society.
One of the three welcomed on the stage was 45-year-old Tanesha Bannister of Columbia, who spoke of how the First Step Act helped her. Bannister was released in May after serving 16 years in prison. She was originally sentenced to life in prison in 2004 after she was convicted in a cocaine smuggling trial.
This context does change the perspective on the event, but only slightly. On the one hand, criminal justice reform is perhaps the only unambiguously good thing to actively come out of this administration, and it was truly achieved as a bipartisan effort, with Democrats and liberal activists working hard with administration officials like Son in Law (I mean, that’s his official title right?) Jared Kushner, and even celebrities like Kim Kardashian getting involved. On the other hand, well, there’s everything else that this administration has done, including all the racist comments, bigoted policies, and appeals to “white nationalists” (which, to remind you, is a thinly veiled term for racists). So even with the criminal justice “win” in Trump’s column, he and his people clearly realized that they’d be in for a hostile reaction, which is why they went to such extraordinary measures to manage the event.
As Kanye West so perceptively observed (no really, that’s not sarcasm), Donald Trump may not care about black people, but he very much, almost obsessively, “would like for black people to like him.” That means that, purely for reasons of self-validation, he’s willing to go out of his way to appeal to the African-American community, albeit often in very tone deaf or even offensive ways, as the late Representative Elijah Cummings pointed out to him in their only face-to-face meeting. While this does not stop the president from saying and doing all kinds of racist stuff personally and supporting many racist policies and politicians, it does provide a window of opportunity to occasionally get some good things done, like the First Step Act or increased funding for HBCUs (although the latter may be offset by cuts elsewhere in the education budget that harm these schools’ students).
Occasionally getting things right vis-à-vis the African American community does not give President Trump the right to demand that we give him credit for the positives but ignore the many negative things the administration has done towards people of color, and towards women (and especially towards women of color, like telling “the squad” to go back where they came from, even though where they came from is mainly “America”), those of other nationalities, various sexual orientations and identities, and so on. It also doesn’t mean that Trump gets to be salty when he doesn’t get this recognition, (and it especially doesn’t mean that he gets to be upset based on his inability to tell Vance Jones apart from John Legend, which seems to be an actual thing that happened recently).
Oh, and lest I forget, did no one consider the bitter irony of celebrating criminal justice reform by arbitrarily confining a large group of young black men and women in order to suppress their ability to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly? President Trump, if you’re looking for ways to make inroads into the black community, this ain’t it.