RNC: It’s Not a Choice Between Police and Black Americans

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Sixty years ago, on a seemingly average February day in Greensboro, N.C., a young Clarence Henderson did something extraordinary. He joined a group of black students who were staging a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, and refused to leave after being denied service. The action emboldened other students to do the same and soon the movement was spreading to college towns across the South.

In recalling the experience Wednesday night, Henderson, 79, said he didn’t know whether he was going to come out “in a vertical or prone position, in handcuffs or on a stretcher — or even in a body bag.”

“We faced down the KKK. We were cursed at and called all kinds of names. They threatened to kill us, and some of us were arrested,” he said, speaking against the backdrop of a huge mural of the four original Woolworth sit-in participants. Despite fearing for his life, Henderson said the experience was worth it.

“In the end, segregation was abolished and our country moved a step closer to true equality for all.”

Up until that point in the remarks, it was impossible to tell the venue where this civil rights trailblazer was speaking. He provided a clue only with his next words. “That’s what an actual peaceful protest can accomplish!” he exclaimed, turning a corner to wholeheartedly endorse President Trump in a 2020 Republican National Convention speech.

Henderson was just one of several men and women of color who have delivered gripping and deeply personal arguments for giving Donald Trump four more years in office and rejecting former Vice President Joe Biden’s record as the right person to close the country’s deep racial divide.

The country right now is reeling amid a reckoning on racial injustice. Henderson made his statements as the nation is confronted with disturbing new images out of Kenosha, Wis. Jacob Blake, who is black, is partially paralyzed after being shot seven times over the weekend at close range by a police officer. Few details have been available to piece together the full backstory, and the aftermath has been all too familiar: Protesters have torched buildings, and on the second night of rioting two people were killed and a third was injured, allegedly at the hands of a white teen.

Henderson has lived through these violent racial clashes before, throughout the 1960s civil rights movement – and more recently in a new period of rioting in the streets over police killings of black men and women, which began during the Obama administration in Ferguson, Mo., and reignited earlier this summer. The turmoil continues to shock the nation’s conscience this week amid the Republicans’ nominating convention.

Unlike many of the speakers at the Democratic convention last week, Henderson doesn’t hold Trump responsible for the mayhem taking place across the country. He also doesn’t endorse the boycotts rippling through the sports world.

Quite the opposite.

Trump, he said, “has done more for black Americans in four years than Joe Biden has done in 50. Joe Biden had the audacity to say if you don’t vote for him ‘you ain’t black.’ Well to that I say, if you do vote for Biden, you don’t know history.”

It’s a stinging indictment of the Democratic nominee’s record, and it didn’t end there. On a night the Trump campaign had said would reflect its law-and-order theme, Henderson praised Trump for signing major prison and criminal-sentence reform laws he helped push through Congress, an opportunity zone measure that incentivizes investment in poor areas, and permanent funding for historically black colleges and universities.

“These achievements demonstrate that Donald Trump truly cares about black lives. His policies show his heart,” Henderson said.

If Henderson was the lone voice making this argument at the convention, viewers may have been stopped in their tracks for the moment, only to become overwhelmed later by a lopsided emphasis on law enforcement. But that hasn’t been the case. The slick four-day GOP pitch for Trump’s second term has featured prime-time speeches by numerous prominent African Americans, some Democrats, all making similar and impassioned arguments for Trump while taking Biden to task for race-related gaffes and his authorship of the 1994 crime bill.

The list has included South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, state Rep. Vernon Jones, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, and three retired professional football players. Maryland congressional nominee Kim Klacik, a long-shot Republican candidate running to represent a Baltimore-area seat long held by the late civil rights advocate Elijah Cummings, helped kick off the convention on Monday by encouraging members of her party not to give up running in cities long-considered Democratic strongholds.

The second night began with a dramatic tale of personal redemption. President Trump issued a surprise pardon to Jon Ponder, a convicted bank robber who had changed his ways in prison and struck up a friendship with his arresting FBI agent. The two now run a charity, Hope for Prisoners, that provides job training and counseling to those leaving jail.

Later on Tuesday, football great Herschel Walker talked about his close ties to Trump, and said he was offended that people would think he has maintained a 35-year friendship with a racist.

“Growing up in the Deep South, I have seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump.” Two more retired NFL players addressed the convention Wednesday night, and made the same point. “I know what racism looks like, I’ve seen it firsthand,” said onetime defensive back Jack Brewer. “In America, it has no resemblance to President Trump and I’m fed up with the way he’s portrayed in the media, who refuse to acknowledge what he’s actually done for the black community.” 

It was a direct, head-on rejection of the label Democrats have long tried to stick to Trump and are working to drive home in the final two months before the election. It also served a dual purpose – an attempt to siphon off black voters from Biden while making an appeal for conservative-leaning swing voters uncomfortable with Trump’s record and rhetoric on race.

Republicans have long tried to tout their outreach to black voters, only to fall flat on Election Day. Republicans won less than 10% of black support in the 2018 midterms and 2016 presidential election. This year it’s an even taller order. Some 88% of black adults said they disapprove of Trump’s job performance in a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Other pre-convention polls show Biden with a 67-percentage-point lead over Trump among black voters with the president attracting only 8%. Still, Biden’s support is smaller than Hillary Clinton’s 79-point in the final registered voter surveys of 2016. In a close race, if Trump can improve even slightly on his past performance, it could give him an edge in key battleground states. Clinton lost Florida by just a little more than a single point and Michigan by a hair — just 0.2 points.

Team Trump’s decision to go all in on race while also pushing back on Democrats’ far-left defund the police movement has another undeniable benefit: trying to carve out a sensible middle ground instead of the familiar division-stoking entrenchments emanating from both sides. Many Americans are weary of the extremes amid general unease over race and ongoing uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic.

Melania Trump won plaudits for trying to strike that balance in her Tuesday night closing address, in which she acknowledged that America has more work to do on racial injustice and division but must also appreciate the blessings of living in a nation where freedom of speech is valued.

Vice President Mike Pence spent much of his speech Wednesday night emphasizing the law enforcement theme, but he also made a commitment to the black community to help end racial and economic inequality.

“We will always stand with those who stand on the thin blue line and we are not going to defund the police, not now, not ever,” he said. “Let me be clear, the violence must stop — whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha. …We will have law and order in the streets of America.”

Pence rejected, wholesale, Biden’s and Democrats’ argument that America is “systemically racist” and discussed how police put their lives on the line every day to protect all communities across America. It was an attempt at striking a moderate note that he believes most Americans will embrace.

“The American people know we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and standing with African American neighbors to improve the quality of life in our cities and towns,” he said. “From the first days of this administration, we have done both. And we will keep doing both for four more years in the White House.”

Whether the messaging convinces enough black voters to help swing the election in Trump’s favor will be known in November, but at the convention this week, no one can say Republicans didn’t try their hardest to make the appeal.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.





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