'Living in hell'? Trump's words don't match reality, black people say

Community leaders in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant say they found Donald Trump's description of their lives 'dumbfounding.' Conditions, they say, are better than they used to be, and are 'getting better every day.'

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters/File
People watch as revellers take part in the overnight-into-dawn celebration called J'Ouvert, ahead of the annual West Indian-American Carnival Day Parade in the Brooklyn borough of New York earlier this month.

It was getting late when Colvin Grannum started walking home from Just My Sweet, an event space and art gallery on Fulton Avenue here in a still-notorious part of Brooklyn.

The Bedford Stuyvesant haunt, which features Jazzy Mondays and art by African artists, was hosting a dinner honoring local civil servants this evening – “all products of Bedford Stuyvesant who went on to do great things,” Mr. Grannum says.

But as he walked home just before 11 p.m., taking especial notice of the smiles and laughter he was seeing on this vibrant thoroughfare, Grannum, the president of a major community center not too far from Just My Sweet, says he couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump of all people.

During Monday’s debate, the Republican nominee had said that “African-Americans and Hispanics are living in hell,” following up on a theme he had been sounding at campaign events the week before.

As in North Carolina last Saturday, when Mr. Trump told a mostly-white audience that “African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever. You take a look at the inner cities. You’ve got no education. You’ve got no jobs. You get shot walking down the street.”

Grannum found his words “shocking and dumbfounding,” and he wondered: Is that what people think of inner city communities like his?

“It’s far from the truth, it’s just far from reality, and it’s not the way people who live here feel,” he says of Bed-Stuy, where 64 percent of its 150,000 are black and 20 percent are Hispanic. “Could the conditions be better? Yes. But they’re a lot better than they used to be and they’re getting better every day.”

Take the formerly abandoned milk bottling plant which has been transformed into a full city block of lively cultural and community spaces. His organization, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, oversees the center, which includes the Billie Holiday Theater, Skylight Gallery, and Youth Arts Academy, where some 500 children participate in youth choruses and dance troupes. Its outdoor spaces are often the site of weddings, outdoor concerts, or just a place for the community to gather.  

The optimism of black Americans

In recent years, many have noted “the surprising optimism of black Americans,” who often express more faith in the future than their white counterparts in opinion polls. And from increasing life expectancies to notable employment gains there have been notes of progress. In 2015, for example, while employment growth for whites and Hispanics slowed when measured as an employment-to-population ratio, African-American adults with a job increased 2.5 percentage points, according to the Employment Policy Institute in Washington.

In the 2016 elections, too, black political power emerged as a surprising bulwark for the status quo, providing Hillary Clinton with the support she needed to become the Democratic nominee during a season in which Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Trump were champions of party revolutions.

Make no mistake, for many black communities around the country, the struggle for equal standing and social justice remains as urgent a cause as ever. From protests spanning city streets to National Football League sidelines, many have been giving voice to the issues surrounding police shootings and the inequities within the criminal justice system. Outside the headlines, many community leaders continue to struggle for greater equality in health care, housing, and education as well.  

Trump’s words, interpreted generously, were in some respects political hyperbole, making a rough-and-ready point that black Americans, according to a number of measures, lag well behind the nation. Black unemployment is still double the national rate; black homeownership is the lowest among any racial group, according to the Census Bureau; and 26 percent of blacks live in poverty, compared with 15 percent of the country as a whole.

Such social ills are especially acute in Bed-Stuy, where 1 of 3 residents live below the poverty level, and 1 of 6 remain unemployed. The neighborhood, which, along with Manhattan’s Harlem is considered a historic center of black culture in New York, also has one of the city’s highest crime rates. In 2016 so far, one of its two police precincts has recorded the second highest number of murders in all the five boroughs.  

'Brooklyn girl, born and bred'

But Brenda Fryson, a member of the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of the neighborhood, says the community here, with numerous block associations and a spirited community board, has always been particularly close-knit, even when times were rougher.

Now in her 70s, Ms. Fryson, the former chairwoman of the neighborhood’s community board, has lived in Bed-Stuy for over 40 years, and is something of a “force of nature,” residents say.

“I’m a Brooklyn girl, born and bred,” she says with an easy laugh, which occurs often in her conversations. “And what always impressed me, was that there was this deep commitment to neighbors and community... That still exists. And I don’t think that’s going anywhere. I think that’s so deep in our DNA that, you know, when people come, we’ve always been a welcoming community, at least that’s been my experience.”

“The block associations were always extremely, extremely strong,” Fryson continues. “And that is something that I really love about Bedford Stuyvesant, that you have these neighbors that get together, they plan, they look at legislation – they don’t take no junk.”

When the streets really were mean

Back in the 1980s when Bed-Stuy resident Tony Herbert was growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, the streets he knew were infamously mean.

One of four boys being raised by a single mother – a teacher’s aide who took home a little bit more than $200 from her biweekly paycheck – he and his family even spent time being homeless, squatting in abandoned buildings between finding affordable apartments.  

“People stole the copper pipes from the basement, so we had to go outside to get running water from the hydrants,” says Mr. Herbert, now the president of the New York State Minority Restaurant and Nightlife Association, and a community advocate in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood.

“Yet as I reflect on what we've come from, as far as the '80s and '90s were concerned, when crack was king and created an atmosphere where everybody wanted to make some money real quick and got involved in that, there have been enormous strides,” he says, noting there were often dealers in the buildings where he grew up.

But even then, Herbert noted a certain kind of community. “Our saving grace, these drug dealers knew my mother from the public school, so they showed her the respect of saying, ‘We won't let your kids get involved with this, nor will we let them get into harm's way.’ ”

Today he works with business owners and entrepreneurs, helping them navigate city ordinances and license requirements. He also works closely with the New York Police Department to maintain the city's dramatic decrease in crime, even in Bed-Stuy.

And New York has seen its lowest crime rate in its recorded history the past two years. Murders are down in the city over 4 percent from this time last year, and the NYPD expects another record-setting year.

Still, murders in the United States have been rising this year, mostly because of spikes in three cities, Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and especially Chicago. Yet many experts see these spikes as anomalies, and not portents of impending crime waves.

'Lots for us to feel proud about'

And most black Americans throughout the country reject Trump’s description of their communities as hellish, hopeless landscapes.

“It’s an inaccurate portrayal of the community that seeks to define the community by only its biggest challenges,” said Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, to The New York Times.  “Black America has deep problems — deep economic problems — but black America also has a large community of striving, successful, hard-working people: college educated, in the work force.”

Grannum’s sprawling complex on Fulton, too, has had tremendous success with its Economic Solutions Center, he says, which places more than 500 people in jobs each year. It also provides low income workers with income supports, including free child care, free health care, and assistance navigating government-sponsored programs.

Its Brooklyn Business Center also tries to help aspiring entrepreneurs, teaching the basics of business plans and ways to obtaining financing.  

“But we still have a great deal of work to do,” says Fryson. “We are still a poor, urban community, and what has kept us going is ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

“This is what the original pioneers of Bedford Stuyvesant fought for, and won,” she continues. “I’m one of the cheerleaders, I’m not the doomsayer. We overcame a crack epidemic, we overcame redlining – these would be devastating factors to any community, let alone an urban community of color. So there’s lots for us to feel proud about, still.”

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