During Monday night’s debate, moderator Lester Holt offered Donald Trump a golden opportunity to dispel perceptions that his campaign is steeped in racism. But Trump, who lags greatly among voters of color, did not seem to have any interest in doing so.
Midway through the debate, Holt, who is African American, asked the candidates what they would do to improve U.S. race relations, which have been marred by police shootings and protests. In his response, Trump failed to offer the usual generic blandishments against racism that any politician could cite, championed the very policies that have deepened the divide and then argued with the moderator about the facts.
The missed opportunity came at a time when Trump has been trying to repair his image on racial issues, reaching out to African American voters with appearances at black churches; a visit to Flint, Mich.; and a town hall on Fox News.
In his debate response, Trump again presented himself as the "law and order" candidate who would expand the stop-and-frisk policing approach employed by his confidant, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Once again, he maintained that blacks have been taken advantage of by Democratic politicians and painted a grim portrait of the community. “Our inner cities, African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous," he said.
Stop and frisk—a practice during which police officers stop and search citizens for weapons or drugs—was widely used in New York City before a judge ruled it unconstitutional for targeting minorities. Many of the African American voters Trump is ostensibly targeting oppose the approach, arguing that it ends up jailing disproportionate numbers of young black men. And experts say it is not just ineffectual but counterproductive.
“Most criminal justice reform experts overwhelmingly oppose stop and frisk,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, the national director of the criminal justice reform initiative #cut50, which is aimed at reducing the prison population by half in the next decade. “It is a policy that erodes trust between police and the communities they serve, undermining the very foundation of justice.”
In a follow-up question, Holt asked Trump what he thought about the judge's finding that it was unconstitutional.
"No, you're wrong," Trump responded. He then tried to argue that the judge's ruling essentially didn't count because she was a "very against-police judge" and the city's current Democratic mayor did not pursue an appeal which Trump seemed to feel would obviously have overturned the verdict. When Holt tried to steer him back on course by noting that "the argument was that it's a form of racial profiling," Trump again rebuffed him.
"No, the argument is that we have to take the guns away from these people that have them and they are bad people that shouldn’t have them," he said.
Even before the debate, Trump faced an uphill battle gaining votes from minorities. A September New York Times/CBS News poll found that 83% of black voters support Hillary Clinton. A recent Public Policy Polling survey found that just 13% of Hispanic and black voters think Trump cares about them. And a recent press conference in which he reversed course on his long-held argument that President Obama was not a natural-born citizen did little to stanch the bleeding.
At the debate, Holt gave Trump another opportunity to repair his image, asking in a tough-but-fair way why it took him so long to change his mind on Obama's birthplace. Trump responded by again trying to shift blame to Clinton, arguing falsely that she started it and claiming that he had succeeded because he goaded President Obama into producing his long-form birth certificate.
"I’m sorry," Holt interjected. "I’m just going to follow up — and I will let you respond to that, because there’s a lot there. But we’re talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans, people of color who…"
"Well, it was very — I say nothing," he said. "I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing."