When President Donald Trump said that abolitionist Frederick Douglass (who died in 1895) is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more,” it left many with the impression that Trump is in need of a history lesson.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with him, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) delivered one, in five pages simply titled “African American History,” as part of a 130-page policy document titled, “We Have a Lot to Lose: Solutions to Advance Black Families in the 21st Century.” It attempted to pack the all of African American history into a digest that the attention span-challenged president could read in less than 5 minutes.
“Black Americans have toiled, fought, and died for this country since the 17th century. European settlers first brought Africans to this country as slaves in 1619. Black Americans have been struggling ever since to gain the fullest measure of their citizenship, but have made innumerable contributions to the country along the way,” the document said. In an apparent rebuke of the Trump slogan “Make American Great Again,” it continued, “From Crispus Attucks being the first American to give his life in the Boston Massacre, to President Barack Obama restoring this nation’s economy in the shadow of an historic financial crisis, we have sacrificed and worked alongside all other Americans to make this country great.”
The document challenges Trump Administration policies launched in his first few months in the White House by calling out disparities in economics, the environment, education, interactions with law enforcement and other critical areas.
With remarks made before the meeting with CBC leaders, Trump acknowledged, “African American citizens have given so much to this country. They’ve fought in every war since the Revolution, and they’ve fought hard. They’ve lifted up the conscience of our nation in the march toward civil rights, enriched the soul of America — and their faith and courage. And they’ve advanced our country in the fields of science, arts and medicine.”
However, for Trump it will take more than a few laudatory statements and photo ops to erase the damage to relations with the Black community caused by years of questioning the citizenship of America’s first Black president, as well as fact-challenged campaign trail statements like, “Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”
But Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who met with the president earlier this month, took exception to that.
“I said to him Mr. President most respectfully, when you’re talking about the African-American community I want you to realize that all African-American communities or not places of depression and where people are being harmed,” Cummings told reporters after the meeting. “As a matter of a fact I let him know that I’ve been living in the inner city of Baltimore for some 35 years in the same house and that I think it will be good for him to acknowledge that most African-American people are doing very, very well.”
CBC unveils its own version of a “New Deal” for Black Americans
Beyond confronting the president over slights, the meeting also covered topics on the agenda outlined in the CBC’s policy document. The agenda includes:
- Strengthening voter protections (such as restoring the gutted Voting Rights Act of 1965) and reforming the criminal justice system, including policing and policies that result in mass incarceration
- Addressing “the expanding wealth and income gaps between the rich and the poor” and strengthening ladders out of poverty, including applying a 10-20-30 formula requiring federal agencies to commit 10 percent of their budgets to the 485 counties suffering from long-term poverty
- Ensuring “every child should have access to a high-quality education and every life deserves affordable, quality health care,” which includes abandoning efforts to “cut and cap” Medicaid coverage
- Improving “the circumstances of the American worker” and preparing the nation’s workforce “for the challenges of the future.”
- Guaranteeing “that every American has equal access to clean air, water, and soil.”
- Addressing “the unique challenges in Rural America and help revitalize these oft forgotten communities,” noting that “Rural African Americans have the highest poverty rate of 33.8 percent, while rural White Americans have the lowest rate of 15 percent”
Further meetings requested with Trump Administration leaders
Unlike some previous Black leaders who have met with Trump, the CBC members avoided a photo op for the president by sitting opposite of him out of TV camera range during his remarks, as the Washington Post noted. During the meeting that followed, which included Vice President Mike Pence and senior advisor Omarosa Manigault, CBC Chairman, Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond informed President Trump that the caucus needs to hear from key cabinet members such as Attorney General Sessions, Secretaries Ben Carson of Housing and Urban Development, Betsy DeVos of Education and Tom Price of Health and Human Services. Individual letters from Caucus members Michigan Rep. John Conyers, Jr., and Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott to Sessions and DeVos, respectively, were hand-delivered as well.
“The answer to the question [Trump] posed during his campaign is this: we have a lot to lose. In fact, we’re beginning to lose a lot already under his Administration; the Republican repeal and replace bill, the proposed budget cuts, and the actions Attorney General Sessions is taking at DOJ are just a few of the many examples of that,” said Richmond, in a CBC press release.
As for what comes next, Richmond said, “If this Administration is serious about creating a ‘New Deal for Black America,’ it has to support and strengthen programs that provide a pathway out of poverty, as well as programs that help Americans achieve the American Dream. Today, the CBC presented President Trump with ‘first 100 days’ and longer-term policy solutions for the African-American community and now the ball is in his court to implement them.”
African Americans need look no further than President Trump’s championing of the American Health Care Act, which may result in millions of low-income Americans losing coverage, or the massive cuts to social, education and community development programs in his current federal budget plan, to see in which direction the ball is currently heading.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editor and digital media consultant. Follow her on Twitter.