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Minority opinion

Can Donald Trump gain enough black voters to make a difference in 2020?

A crowd cheers for President Trump at the Black Voices for Trump event. Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux

Minority opinion
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IN A 90-YEAR-OLD BUILDING in downtown Greensboro, the Woolworth’s lunch counter still looks just as it did when Clarence Henderson quietly defied a racist store policy and helped change the course of American history

The building now houses the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, and the once-bustling diner sits preserved in its original spot. That’s where Henderson joined three other black college students on Feb. 2, 1960, to sit at the sprawling lunch counter designated for white customers only.

The sit-ins at the popular department store helped spark a series of similar protests and counterprotests in Greensboro and across the South. By the end of the summer, the Greensboro diner was desegregated. Successes followed in other cities.

This February marks the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins. Henderson remembers the insults he heard on that day and others. He says it was worth it to “put Jim Crow on trial.”

Today Henderson faces a different kind of trial: “I still get called names by people who think I’m on the wrong side of history now.” In 2016, Henderson wrote an op-ed for The Charlotte Observer criticizing those who equated debates over transgender restroom policies with the civil rights battles he and thousands of others fought over racial prejudice.

Later that year, he publicly supported Donald Trump for president. He’s voted for GOP candidates for years because he opposes abortion and likes the party’s economic policies.

That makes Henderson a minority within a minority. Black voters have overwhelmingly supported Democrats since Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Nearly 98 percent backed President Barack Obama in 2008.

Henderson says critics have called him “an Uncle Tom” and “a sellout.” He still believes voters should think for themselves: “When someone tells you how to vote, they’re trying to tell you what to think instead of how to think.”

Voters like Henderson raise an intriguing question: Could Trump get enough support from black voters to make a difference in a tight 2020 election? Could a voting bloc that some pollsters consider unwinnable for Republicans help Trump win a second term?

Past voting patterns and current polls suggest a surge in African American support isn’t likely, but a surge might not be necessary. Moving the needle a few percentage points in key swing states could tip a close contest.

Even that seems unlikely to many pundits, considering some of Trump’s rhetoric. Still, the Trump campaign is working hard to reach black voters and may find unexpected allies in an under-the-radar policy fight.

Clarence Henderson sits at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where he and other students in 1960 staged a sit-in to protest the store’s segregation policy.

Clarence Henderson sits at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where he and other students in 1960 staged a sit-in to protest the store’s segregation policy. Skip Foreman/AP

OUTSIDE THE TYLER PERRY STUDIOS near downtown Atlanta, some 300 demonstrators gathered a few hours before Democratic presidential candidates took the stage for their fifth televised debate in mid-November.

In a notable twist, at least some of the protesters were Democrats. They hoisted homemade signs supporting school choice. One sign declared, “Black Democrats want charters!”

Inside the television studios, Democratic presidential candidates sparred over climate change and healthcare, but school choice didn’t rank high in debate topics—even though hours earlier the crowd outside chanted to the beat of a marching band from a charter school: “Our children, our choice.”

That’s not a talking point among Democratic presidential candidates.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has called for a moratorium on federal funds for new charter schools. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has called for a similar freeze, despite charter schools’ popularity among many families—including a majority of African American voters.

A poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform—a nonprofit group that supports expanding charter schools—reported that 58 percent of black Democratic voters view charter schools favorably. Only 26 percent of white Democratic voters expressed a favorable view.

Warren and Sanders have said charter schools divert resources from traditional public schools. But charter schools are public schools privately managed by boards of directors, and usually require substantial parental involvement. Some 3 million children attend charter schools nationwide, with thousands of students reportedly on waiting lists.

Still, bolstering charter schools often isn’t palatable for Democratic candidates courting the support of powerful teachers unions. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks political giving, says the political contributions of teachers unions grew from $4.3 million in 2004 to $32 million in 2016. The unions contribute more than 94 percent of those funds to Democratic candidates.

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the United States, emphasized in 2017 its “forceful support of state and local efforts to limit charter school growth and increase charter school accountability.”

Some charter schools are ineffective, and some states—including Warren’s home state, Massachusetts—have curbed their expansion. But many parents have praised the schools’ successes, particularly among lower-income students seeking better educational options.

Outside the television studio in Atlanta, Richard Buery, head of public policy for KIPP, the largest charter school network in the country, told The New York Times he views the Democrats’ move away from charter schools as “a reflection more broadly of the lack of respect for black voters in the party.” Buery is African American and a Democrat.

The next morning, black and Latino parents interrupted Elizabeth Warren’s remarks about race at a campaign rally in Atlanta: They chanted, “Our voice, our choice!” The charter school activists wore black T-shirts reading,“Powerful parent network.” The back of the shirts read, “#stateofemergency.”

In December, 100 protesters gathered outside a forum in Pittsburgh, where Democratic presidential candidates gathered to discuss public education. Candidates reportedly said little about charter schools, but demonstrators outside repeated their calls for school choice.

Pennsylvania is a hotly contested swing state: Trump narrowly flipped the state in 2016, marking the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won in Pennsylvania since 1988. Lots of issues and voting blocs will factor into the presidential contest in Pennsylvania—and every other battleground state—in 2020, but school choice remains an ongoing debate in Pennsylvania politics.

Do enough black voters worry enough about school choice to break from Democrats in an election?

A recent election in at least one swing state suggests it’s already happened. In 2018, Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida’s gubernatorial race.

DeSantis had closely tied his campaign to Trump. (A campaign ad showed DeSantis helping his young daughter build a pretend border wall with toy blocks.) Trump campaigned for DeSantis in Florida in the final days of the election. Gillum, who was the mayor of Tallahassee, would have become the state’s first African American governor. But exit polls reported some 100,000 black women voted for DeSantis over Gillum. A likely reason: school choice. Gillum expressed opposition to charter schools and other school choice programs.

More than 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in a program that offers tax-funded scholarships to attend private schools. Shortly after the election, William Mattox of the Marshall Center for Educational Options described most of the students in the Florida scholarship program as “minorities whose mothers are registered Democrats.”

That dynamic is difficult to ignore in a state famous for deciding presidential elections in nail-biting contests.

It’s also a dynamic that isn’t lost on Trump. His 2020 budget proposal called for increasing federal charter school grants by $60 million. In December, he invited DeSantis to the White House for an event with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for school choice programs. Trump urged Congress to consider a proposal to use federal tax credits to help pay for educational services, including private school tuition.

He renewed that call during his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, saying: “No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

The president introduced Janiyah Davis, an African American 4th grader from Philadelphia. Her single mother, Stephanie, accompanied her. Trump said the governor of Pennsylvania had vetoed legislation to expand school choice, and Janiyah remained on a waiting list for an opportunity scholarship.

Her mother told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Janiyah attended a Christian elementary school in grades one through three, but Davis struggled to pay for the tuition with a partial scholarship. Janiyah transferred to a charter school in Philadelphia in September.

Trump announced that a scholarship had become available for Janiyah, and she would soon attend the school of her choice. Her mother told the Inquirer she and her daughter were discussing their options for next year. The charter school is popular, and many students won’t get in: The Inquirer reported some 6,500 students have applied for 100 spots at the school next year.

Clarence Henderson sits at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where he and other students in 1960 staged a sit-in to protest the store’s segregation policy.

Clarence Henderson sits at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where he and other students in 1960 staged a sit-in to protest the store’s segregation policy. Skip Foreman/AP

TWO WEEKS BEFORE Democrats debated in Atlanta, Trump showed up at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta to kick off a campaign effort: Black Voices for Trump.

In 2016, Trump courted black voters by asking a blunt question: “What the hell do you have to lose?” Black voters answered clearly: Only 8 percent chose Trump. But that was still a higher level of support than Republican Mitt Romney garnered in 2012, when he won 6 percent of black voters.

The political realities were certainly different: In 2012, Romney challenged the still-popular President Barack Obama, while Trump faced the scandal-plagued Hillary Clinton in the 2016 contest, even as he faced scandals of his own.

Trump’s ability to attract black voters in 2020 will likely depend on his eventual Democratic challenger: Former Vice President Joe Biden maintains a high level of support among black voters, while Sanders, Warren, and Pete Buttigieg have struggled.

But now Trump’s pitch to black voters is more fleshed out: a record low unemployment rate among black Americans, a surge in small businesses owned by black entrepreneurs, a criminal justice reform bill, and increased funding for historically black colleges and universities. The president highlighted such strides during the State of the Union.

Poll numbers vary, but his support among black voters appears to remain low. In August, polling from Rasmussen showed Trump’s approval among black voters at about 30 percent. In November, -Gallup reported a 10 percent approval. In January, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll reported 8 out of 10 black Americans believe Trump is racist.

If the truth about Trump’s support among African Americans is somewhere between the differing poll numbers, his black supporters will likely continue to face questions about charges that Trump is racist.

Some opponents point to Trump’s rhetoric, including his 2019 comments that a predominantly African American district in Baltimore was “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

Dean Nelson, now an adviser to the Black Voices for Trump coalition, says he was part of a gathering of African American leaders who met with Trump shortly after his Twitter comments about the Baltimore district represented by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. (Cummings died in late 2019).

Nelson says four black pastors at the meeting spoke to the president about taking care in remarks directed toward African American communities. He believes accusations of racism “fall flat,” considering some of Trump’s actions aimed at helping black communities.

Given recent polls, the president may have a steep hill to climb to convince other black voters. But he’s not shying away.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, told the Associated Press in January that the campaign had already spent more than $1 million on black outreach, including radio, print, and online advertising. The Republican National Committee has launched a grassroots effort to send staffers and volunteers into black communities to talk about GOP candidates ahead of the 2020 elections.

Vernon Robinson, author of Coming Home: How Black Americans Will Re-Elect Trump, says Republican candidates have to work to gain the trust of African American voters like himself: “No one has ever made a sale without asking for the order. [Republicans] haven’t asked for the business for 60 years.” Robinson says GOP politicians should also talk more about how abortion disproportionately affects African American communities.

Winsome Earle Sears was the first black Republican woman elected to the Virginia Statehouse, nearly 20 years ago. She became a Republican in the 1980s, partly because of her pro-life views and support for the GOP’s economic platform. She says she faced name-calling and insults when she ran as a black Republican in 2001.

Sears says Democrats have taken African American voters for granted, and Republicans often don’t ask for their votes because they think they can’t win them. As a black voter, she says, “Nobody knocks on my door and asks me what I think.” She says both parties assume they already know how she’ll vote.

When Georgia Republican Brian Kemp won his gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018, a particular exit poll startled some pundits: Eleven percent of black men backed Kemp over Abrams. An editorial in The Washington Post tried to shame them: “What’s up with all those black men who voted for the Republican in the Georgia governor’s race?” A Boston Globe editorial chastised the black male voters, saying the GOP is “unabashedly the party of white supremacy, migrant family separations, racist fear mongering, and Brett Kavanaugh.”

Sears supports Trump, but says she’s not trying to convince everyone to become a Republican. She wants voters to think for themselves and consider the merits of each candidate and policy. She doesn’t give Republicans immunity: In 2018, she mounted a write-in campaign to challenge a Republican candidate for Senate she thought was embracing racist ideas.

“After everything I’ve been through as a black Republican,” she says, “how could I not?”

—This story has been updated with more information about Janiyah Davis and where she has attended school.

Jamie Dean

Jamie is a journalist and the former national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie resides in Charlotte, N.C.


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