Speculation that Donald Trump's outreach to black voters had more to do with broadening his appeal among white moderates were confirmed by his responses to questions about race relations during Monday night's presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.
Asked by debate moderator Lester Holt how each candidate would "bridge a very wide and bitter gap" in race relations, Trump gave an answer that might sound fine to his overwhelmingly white base but was likely off-putting to many African Americans.
"Well, first of all, Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words, and that's law and order. And we need law and order. If we don't have it, we're not going to have a country," Trump said. "When I look at what's going on throughout various parts of our country, whether it's, I mean, I can just keep naming them all day long, we need law and order in our country."
His remarks sounded eerily familiar to me. I was reminded of another presidential wannabe, George Wallace, who in 1968 said: "I'm talking about law and order. The Supreme Court of our country has handcuffed the police, and tonight if you walk out of this building and are knocked in the head, the person who knocks you in the head is out of jail before you get in the hospital, and on Monday morning, they'll try a policeman about it."
Don't get me wrong. I agree that too many black neighborhoods, beset by crime linked to poverty and joblessness, need more law and order. But Trump was asked a question about improving race relations and never answered it. Did he fear that saying people need to appreciate their differences, rather than fear them, might confuse his base?
Another telling sign of Trump's true colors occurred when Holt asked why for five years he "perpetuated a false claim that the nation's first black president was not a natural-born citizen"?
Trump tried to blame Clinton for the "birther" movement, saying that during her 2008 presidential campaign former White House staffer Sidney Blumenthal and Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle first raised questions about Obama's birthplace.
"When I got involved, I didn't fail," Trump boasted. "I got him to give the birth certificate."
Holt pointed out that Obama produced his birth certificate in 2011, but only two weeks ago did Trump admit the president was born in Hawaii. His excuse for perpetuating the "birther" lie: "Well, nobody was pressing it. Nobody was caring much about it," Trump said. "I figured you would ask the question tonight, of course."
Clinton pounced on the opening to note an earlier racism accusation involving Trump. "Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African Americans, and he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy," she said. "So he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior."
Trump's response wasn't exactly a denial that he and his father's real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens had done anything wrong. "We settled that lawsuit with zero — with no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do," he said. "That was a lawsuit brought against many real estate firms, and it's just one of those things."
It wasn't "just one of those things" for the black and Puerto Rican families who were the victims of housing discrimination. The Justice Department sued Trump Management Inc. after its investigation revealed that the real estate company was secretly marking the rental applications of minorities with codes, such as "No. 9" or "C" for colored, to steer them away from buildings with mostly white tenants.
The government's case included testimony from undercover "testers" who said white rental applicants would be shown apartments after black applicants were told none were available.
Trump said the government was trying to force his company to rent to welfare recipients. He filed a countersuit seeking $100 million for falsely accusing him and his father of racial discrimination, but the counterclaim was dismissed. The original case was settled in 1975, with the Trumps signing an agreement prohibiting them from "discriminating against any person" and requiring them to place equal housing opportunity ads in local papers.
Forty years later, Trump still won't admit that he and his father did anything wrong. Instead, he prefers to point out that the settlement didn't require an admission of guilt. That cavalier attitude may be fine with his base, but it isn't the message one would expect from someone who says he cares about neglected black communities.
Trump says he's not a racist, but he cannot deny a history of putting his ability to make money above any other consideration. "That's called business," he said Monday night when asked about taking advantage of the 2008 housing crisis. That perspective may be an admirable trait in real estate, but it suggests a callousness I wouldn't want in a president who is supposed to embody the hopes and dreams of all Americans, and not just those who look like they can pay.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for the Inquirer.