Skip to main content

Andra Gillespie is an associate professor at Emory University and the author of Race and the Obama administration: Substance, symbols and hope

At this point, the fact Donald Trump attacks his detractors on Twitter should not come as a surprise. However, when he lashed out at my congressman, Rep. John Lewis, and disparaged my congressional district, it highlighted for me, in a deeply personal way, the ways that president-elect Trump continues to alienate himself and his party from black constituents.

By engaging in an uninformed, ad hominem attack on a civil-rights legend (and using stereotypes in the process), Mr. Trump makes it difficult for blacks to believe that he intends to be an honest broker on issues of concern to their communities.

Subscribers: As inauguration looms, Trump has lots to prove

Sarah Kendzior: Donald Trump's shakedown of the American dream

Joanna Slater: The Trump Show: What makes the man who will become president tick?

Congressman Lewis, an Alabama native whose skull was fractured marching for voting rights in Selma, was accused by the next President of the United States of being "all talk and no action."

That Mr. Trump attacked Mr. Lewis should not have been a surprise – after all, he has lashed out at anyone willing to publicly criticize him (see: Megyn Kelly, Meryl Streep, the cast of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live).

But we should all be worried about how Mr. Trump attacked a civil-rights legend – with no apparent regard for facts or context. Mr. Trump said Mr. Lewis should spend more time "fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)."

It was as though Mr. Trump had never set foot in his district, which does have challenged neighbourhoods and higher-than-average unemployment, but also includes upscale communities such as the Buckhead shopping district and Midtown Atlanta. Mr. Lewis's district also includes my employer, Emory University, which U.S. News & World Report ranks as the 20th-best major university in the United States, as well as other venerated colleges and universities such as Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Spelman and Georgia State.

Mr. Trump should know this: He held rallies in the heart of Mr. Lewis's district in Atlanta (in January near where the 2019 Super Bowl will take place and in June at the Fox Theatre). And, as a businessman, he announced plans to build luxury towers in the Fifth District (those plans were aborted after the 2007-2008 housing market crash).

Mr. Trump should know, but yet he assumes that a black congressman representing a majority black, urban district must clearly represent a decaying inner city. And it is that type of behaviour – coupled with the divisive and racially charged rhetoric of his campaign – that makes it difficult for him to forge alliances with much of the African-American community.

Mr. Trump touts the fact that, according to exit polls, he did two percentage points better among blacks than Mitt Romney did in 2012. However, he ignores the fact that more than 90 per cent of black Americans voted against him. (To be sure, blacks are the most Democratic voting bloc in the United States, so from a partisan standpoint alone, this is not surprising.) The president-elect must realize he must go a long way to build trust among blacks and that he loses ground every time he speaks intemperately.

In the wake of the Twitter brouhaha, Mr. Trump had a well-publicized meeting with Martin Luther King III. (Incidentally, the King Center, where Martin Luther King Jr. is buried, is also in the Fifth District.) I am sure Mr. Trump hopes that the optics of that meeting will blunt the fallout from the Twitter attack on John Lewis.

However, that meeting will likely not have the intended effect. Mr. Trump has made attempts to reach out to blacks before, but they have usually been neutralized by some other, offensive behaviour.

Take his appeal to blacks to consider giving the Republican Party a try. He framed it in the context of stereotypes of black pathology and asked (a mostly white audience), "What the hell do you have to lose?" President-elect Trump must realize that his charged rhetoric and thoughtless, uncontrolled tweets against a civil-rights legend have given blacks a very jaundiced view of him and make them leery of trusting him as the next leader of our country.

Martin Luther King III reportedly spoke to president-elect Trump about the importance of protecting voting rights for all Americans. I hope that Donald Trump heeds Mr. King's request. If he does, though, that is only a first step, one that needs to be followed by many more steps of positive behaviour and no evidence of backsliding (i.e. trying to vindicate oneself by noting via Twitter how John Lewis has skipped more inaugurations than he claims to have skipped).

I hope president-elect Trump realizes how his positive actions on race are offset by the magnitude of his negative behaviour. One meeting on MLK Day will not offset attacking the congressman representing Mr. King's district before and after that meeting.

Interact with The Globe