A bar bet on Donald Trump’s appeal to African-Americans

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center, joins a group of African-American religious leaders to speak to reporters in New York in November, 2015. Trump met with a coalition of 100 African-American evangelical pastors and religious leaders in a private meeting at Trump Tower. AP/Seth Wenig

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center, joins a group of African-American religious leaders to speak to reporters in New York in November, 2015. Trump met with a coalition of 100 African-American evangelical pastors and religious leaders in a private meeting at Trump Tower. AP/Seth Wenig

If you had a decent history teacher in high school, you were taught that European democracies are slightly different from those in the Americas, both north and south.

Democracies in this Western Hemisphere tend to be ethnic stews governed, with varying degrees of faithfulness, by constitutions and compacts. European democracies are built around nationalities — tribes of same-language peoples.

A President Donald Trump and his “great again” appeals would push us closer toward the European model than we already are, his critics contend. If they’re right, a heightened season of racial tension could be in our Southern future. Some of those we have placed in charge of our consciences have already begun to stir.

Citing a “waiting reservoir … of inherent racism” tapped by Trump, former President Jimmy Carter this week announced a September gathering in Atlanta aimed at ending segregation among many Baptist congregations.

More conservative Southern Baptists gather next month in St. Louis. The hottest topics of their convention are somewhat related: A resolution endorsing a ban on public display of the Confederate battle flag, and a discussion of whether it would be morally proper to cast a vote for Donald Trump. Or Hillary Clinton, for that matter.

This fall, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta will erect a historical marker in downtown Macon, outside a still-standing theater where the body of a murdered black man was once dumped for display. The event, which will begin a three-year effort to identify Georgia’s unremembered lynching victims, has “absolutely” nothing to do with Trump, said one organizer, Catherine Meeks, a retired Mercer University professor.

But the October timing will make a link to the presidential contest hard to avoid.

And yet.

Minority engagement director Leo Smith speaks at Georgia Republican Party headquarters in Atlanta in this file photo from 2014. Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

Minority engagement director Leo Smith speaks at Georgia Republican Party headquarters in Atlanta in this file photo from 2014. Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

Within the walls of the headquarters of the Georgia Republican party is an African-American who has no fear of a full-throated Trump campaign. In fact, Leo Smith, minority engagement director for the Georgia GOP, thinks the billionaire could attract as much as 20 percent of the black vote.

In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won an estimated 7 percent of African-American ballots.

I asked Smith to explain the coming miracle.

First of all, Smith posits, the do-gooding efforts mentioned above have “limited” value and will do little to address America’s racial divide — which, he acknowledges, certainly exists. However, Smith asked, “Why would you expect those people who created the system to know how to find a solution?”

Not that the man who will be the Republican nominee has offered one of his own. He doesn’t roll that way.

“Donald Trump does not propose to heal the racial divide,” Smith said. ”That is a liberal proposition. Liberals are always talking about healing the racial divide. Conservatives legislate to affect behavior. We don’t legislate to affect the healing of somebody’s heart. Or changing people’s minds.”

So what will make the GOP nominee-to-be attractive to black voters? “Trump’s platform position on making sure Americans are considered first,” Smith answered. Tightened immigration, plus an economic boom.

“Trump is saying, ‘I want to make it easier for you, because you will have to compete less with other people,’” Smith said. ”That is a better solution than what the Democratic party left tends to propose.”

Give African-Americans sufficient access to the economy, and the racial divide can cure itself, Smith argues. If you have spent any time on the campus of a historically black college or university, you’ll recognize in Smith’s remarks the tensions created by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, authors of the two most influential political approaches within African-American society to racism in America.

“Du Bois is saying white people have the power, and white people have to fix it. Booker T. is saying people should be self-empowered, and black people should worry less about white people,” Smith said. He leans toward the more conservative Washington.

But Smith’s economic-based argument is also familiar to anyone who has listened to the Democratic side of the presidential contest. In reaching out to black voters, Bernie Sanders has focused on an overhaul of the American economic system as the primary solution to racial inequality. Hillary Clinton supporters see a divide that is also deeply rooted in culture.

Smith doesn’t begrudge Donald Trump’s appeal to whites. ”We beat down white people. We‘ve beat down the idea of being a proud American. We’ve beat it down and we’ve disparaged it. Those people, they have fears and concerns, too,” he said. “And those people deserve an advocate.”

We have a small, friendly bet on black turnout in November, Smith and I — a single glass of beer, or something stronger, if events warrant.

I have no special insight into African-American philosophy, and I’m no economist. But I do know that, if this presidential contest is as tight in late October as it is now, President Barack Obama won’t be sitting on the sidelines. And he’ll interpret a Trump victory as a failure of his legacy.

Obama will appear before every African-American audience he can, doing everything within his power to make sure that Leo Smith buys me a beer, or something stronger, on the second Wednesday in November.


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