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Coronavirus, racial protest response could undermine Trump’s outreach to Black voters in Michigan

MLive Ann Arbor logo MLive Ann Arbor 6/20/2020 By Malachi Barrett, mlive.com
a group of people standing in front of a building: Historian Danielle L. McGuire speaks Virginia Park, once the location of the Algiers Motel, in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Historian Danielle L. McGuire speaks Virginia Park, once the location of the Algiers Motel, in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

Criticisms of President Donald Trump’s response to the impact of COVID-19 and systemic racism could spoil his campaign’s efforts to win over Black voters in Michigan.

The president’s re-election campaign is dedicating more resources to convert a fraction of traditionally Democratic-leaning Black voters, primarily by making the case that economic growth experienced during most of Trump’s first term brought prosperity to neglected minority communities. But the coronavirus, which caused historic unemployment and higher rates of death and infection for Black Americans, and Trump’s aggressive reaction to protests against police brutality could undermine the campaign’s message in Michigan, a key 2020 electoral battleground.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Protesters are seen through and reflected in the windows of a Q Line station along Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Protesters are seen through and reflected in the windows of a Q Line station along Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

“(Trump) did not precipitate protests, nor coronavirus, or even the economic fallout that’s fomenting as a consequence, but his response to all of those has not won any favors in many parts of the Black community,” said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who studies African American politics.

Trump’s divisive rhetoric has left some Black Republicans questioning their place in the GOP.

Dave Worthams, an African American man and former chairman of the Kalamazoo County Republican Party, said his doubts about Trump were intensified by the president’s infamous response to a violent protest organized by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va. Worthams no longer considers himself a Republican.

a group of people riding bikes on a city street: Protesters march past American Coney Island down Michigan Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Protesters march past American Coney Island down Michigan Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

“I don’t understand the thought process of saying ‘there are good people on both sides’ of a racial issue,” Worthams said. “When you have somebody who drove through a crowd of protesters; when you had a white power march with torches and angry chants that immediately make you think of the KKK ... I just could not understand that, and then to see fellow Republicans bending over backward to cover it and then attacking anyone who had doubts about it was just so disappointing.”

An employee of Sgt. Pepperoni's Pizza hands out water to protesters as they march by in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS An employee of Sgt. Pepperoni's Pizza hands out water to protesters as they march by in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

“I think (Trump’s) performance both in COVID and George Floyd kind of amplifies the concerns that folks saw after Charlottesville,” Worthams added.

With five only months until the election, Americans in all 50 states are taking to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25.

Though the protests triggered bipartisan support for police reforms, Worthams said Republicans are again failing to identify the threat systemic racism poses to African Americans.

“I don’t think for a conservative Black person like myself, that there’s room for me in the other party’s tent, but there’s definitely not room for me in the Republican Party right now unless I swear to follow the president, wherever he goes,” he added.

Matthew Countryman, an expert on African American social movements at the University of Michigan, said ant-Trump sentiments helped fuel the recent protests.

“There is a quiet desperation that has built. It’s exploded,” Countryman said. “It’s the (George Floyd) video and the pandemic that are the triggers, but the fuel is three and a half years of divisiveness and mismanagement and failure to lead, an approach to the presidency that is unprecedented in its divisiveness.”

Protesters are seen through and reflected in the windows of a Q Line station along Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Protesters are seen through and reflected in the windows of a Q Line station along Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

Then-candidate Trump was in Michigan when he made a famously blunt pitch to African Americans -- “What the hell do you have to lose?” -- and predicted he would win 95% of the Black vote in 2020.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

Hutchings said Trump’s re-election campaign probably realizes it has “no shot” of winning a majority of African American voters, but that’s not the goal. The president was elected in 2016 with only 8% of the Black vote, according to exit polls.

a group of people walking down the street: Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

“The goal is to get a big enough fraction of (Black voters) to allow him to get an electoral college victory,” Hutchings said.

Michigan was among a handful of states Trump managed to flip by a narrow margin in 2016. The Great Lakes State is among the top targets for the president’s re-election campaign, but recent polls show he might face an uphill battle to take it again.

Two surveys of likely Michigan voters taken days apart by Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA found Trump trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 12 points and 16 points. Black voters surveyed by EPIC-MRA had a more pessimistic view of the country’s direction, the economy and the president’s COVID-19 response compared to white Michiganders.

The second poll, taken from May 31 to June 4, found eight in 10 African American respondents felt the country was headed in the wrong direction under Trump’s leadership -- 82% chose Biden in a head-to-head matchup with Trump.

The poll found 12% of Black voters would vote to re-elect the president, but EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie Porn he expects that figure to decrease as the campaign season ramps up.

“I would be amazed if it wasn’t more like 5% by election time,” he said.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes, who recently called the president and his supporters racist, has said depressed turnout among Black and minority voters in the last presidential election played a substantial role in Trump’s narrow Michigan victory. The party has put more effort into engaging voters who sat out or voted third-party in the previous election.

a group of people holding wine glasses: Activist Dan Aldridge speaks at Virginia Park, once the location of the Algiers Motel, in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Activist Dan Aldridge speaks at Virginia Park, once the location of the Algiers Motel, in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

LaTricea Adams, founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint, said Black voters are skeptical of the Democratic Party, but they’re not jumping into the arms of Trump’s GOP either.

“We are really seeing democracy work, it’s not an allegiance to a party anymore,” Adams said. “The Black community has awakened and seen that we can’t have a devotion to a particular party, we have to have a devotion to the people who best represent us. Until that person surfaces, it’s going to look very interesting in November.”

The president’s allies in Michigan say he’s done more than enough to garner more support among minority voters in 2020. Linda Lee Tarver, a Republican organizer and national advisor for Trump’s campaign, said the president has extended a listening ear to the Black community.

“In my two decades of being with the Republican Party, I have noticed that great ideas, great policies, sometimes get mired in the inability to effectively communicate,” Tarver said. “His approach is to invite people of color to come in and really have a genuine conversation.”

Tarver said the president shouldn’t be expected to fix systemic racism. She said crime in urban communities like Detroit is a larger problem than police killings of unarmed Black men.

“The advisers that he’s talking to are not dealing with the issue of pookie who gets killed by the white popo, they’re dealing with the bigger issue of and the larger quantity of Black on Black crime, the drugs and the gangs that are infiltrating our community that are not being dealt with,” Tarver said. “That is killing most of my people.”

Mary Lisa, a 22-year-old Ypsilanti resident, was one of the few people of color to attend Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Macomb County in February. This week, Lisa said she still supports the president but wishes he would be more outspoken about the systemic racism protesters are fighting against.

Trump argued years of loyalty to Democratic politicians yielded few results for minority voters, something Lisa also cited during an interview.

“Nothing changed for us, and then Trump came into office, and he’s actually making some great changes,” Lisa said. “It’s a hard time to be president, especially with everyone against you.”

Trump’s re-election campaign consistently points to four main achievements while courting African American voters: Trump’s work to spur economic investment in poor communities and Historic Black Colleges and Universities; the creation of a bipartisan prison reform law; and record-low unemployment African Americans experienced before the pandemic.

a group of people walking on a city street: Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/Jacob Hamilton/Mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

“President Trump has delivered for the Black community and looks forward to running on his impressive record of results,” Republican National Committee Spokesperson Paris Dennard said in a statement.

The campaign also highlighted those efforts to deliver “unprecedented results” for African Americans in its statement recognizing Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

Adrianne Shropshire is the executive director of BlackPAC, a political nonprofit that focuses on boosting electoral participation among African Americans. She said some Black voters who participated in focus groups in Detroit were willing to give the Trump campaign the benefit of the doubt -- before the pandemic.

“This sort of ‘the economy is better for you’ argument is obviously now completely out the window,” Shropshire said.

During his most recent visit to Michigan, Trump held a listening session with African American leaders and acknowledged the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on Black communities. He also lamented that a historic period of economic growth was benefitting people of color before being cut short by the coronavirus.

“African American unemployment and employment was the best; they were the best numbers that we’ve ever had,” Trump said. “And then, we had the plague flow in from China.”

A recession caused by efforts to contain COVID-19 has also undermined the claim that African Americans are financially better off. The economic fallout brought worse consequences for African Americans, including higher rates of unemployment.

“(The pandemic) has exacerbated all the racial disparities, whether it’s in health, in income and wealth,” said Lisa Cook, an economist at Michigan State University. “It has laid bare all of these inequalities that are rooted in systemic racism.”

The May jobs report found unemployment decreased among white workers, but slightly rose among Black workers. The unemployment rate for African Americans increased was twice as high compared to white workers at the beginning of the year and since rose from 6% in January to 16.8% in May.

“Even six months ago, when the unemployment rate was low, it was still higher than among whites and one would be hard-pressed to say that African Americans were living in Nirvana,” Hutchings said. “It was always a specious argument to begin with, but it was the best one they could make. To their credit, they tried to make it, but they can’t even do that anymore.”

Worthams said Black voters may have been willing to accept the Trump campaign’s pitch if the president had been able to bring the country together. But a laundry list of insensitive comments -- from telling a Michigan congresswoman to “go back” to where she came to his suggestion that the military should quell protests against police violence -- have done little to ease Worthams’ mind.

“It might have helped him before George Floyd, but between that and his performance in COVID, that has really kind of balanced out the efforts that he’s made for the historically Black colleges for empowerment zones and what have you,” Worthams said.

Trump is planning to hold a signature high-energy campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday -- a city known for one of America’s the bloodiest race massacres in 1921 -- but the event attracted public backlash soon after it was announced. Trump originally scheduled the rally on Juneteenth, but changed the date to respect the date’s significance to the Black community.

Shropshire doesn’t expect the rally to move the needle on Trump’s support among African Americans.

“The reality is that Black voters want Trump gone,” Shropshire said. “They see divisiveness and the sort of the rise of racism and mainstreaming of white supremacist ideas as a result of his election. Black voters don’t just want to get rid of Trump, they want to get rid of Trumpism and all that it represents.”

READ MORE:

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