Among black men, a spark of support for Donald Trump

Donald Trump won a tiny fraction of the black vote, but his economic message resonates among some black working-class men. 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Tyrone Melendez now calls himself a Trump supporter.

Tyrone Melendez is a black man who did not vote, and the result is fine with him.

In the weeks since Donald Trump was elected president, many communities of color have risen up in anger or fear to reject Mr. Trump’s rhetoric against Mexican immigrants as “rapists” or black Americans as living in “hell.”

But Mr. Melendez was not one of them.

The 30-something long-haul truck driver from Covington, Ga., says he watches America roll by his truck window every day and feels that much of its potential remains untapped. He also looks around at his own community and sees the unfulfilled promise of the years of President Obama, for whom he voted twice. Persistent wealth, income, and education gaps continue to devastate the black working class in America, he says.

For those reasons and more, he’s now a supporter of Trump.

“I’d much rather have a guy look me in the eyes and tell me what he really feels than try to tell me what he thinks I want to hear,” he says. “That’s a man whose hand I’ll shake. And that’s why I have no worries about Trump.”

By the numbers, the 2016 election looked typical, in many ways. Exit polls show Trump won 8 percent of the black vote, continuing Republicans’ largely dismal showing with that group. No Republican presidential candidate has won more than 15 percent of the black vote since Gerald Ford in 1976 (17 percent).

But in an election where racial rhetoric was so prominent and pointed – and where the first black president exhorted voters to choose Hillary Clinton – Trump’s showing came as a surprise. Among black men, Trump won 13 percent.

The data don’t point to a “success” for Trump in courting black voters, but they do point to important nuance. For some black working-class men, like Melendez, Trump’s economic rhetoric resonated more than his racial rhetoric. In short, like their white working-class counterparts, they saw in Trump the man who would bring back their jobs and their dignity.

“What you are hearing is there are some minority voters who are not repelled by the racial undertones of Trump’s message and are, in fact, … attracted and intrigued by what they are hearing from Trump,” says Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist who studies black voting behavior. “On top of all that, Trump portrays a patina of success, and because he looks successful people are willing to trust him to do things differently.”

‘All the way back to 1950’

Much has been made about Trump’s open appeals to white working-class men – a strategy that, particularly in the Rust Belt, likely won him the election.

But in some ways, a working-class platform can cross racial lines. The same decline in working class jobs that stoked the Trump rebellion has, if anything, hit the black working class even harder, Duke economist Patrick Bayer told the website Duke Today.

In addition, the black community faced steeply rising incarceration rates in the 1980s and ’90s.

Professor Bayer’s research, released in the National Bureau of Economic Research last month, found that 35 percent of black men weren’t working in 2014 – up from 19 percent in 1960. That compares with 17 percent of white men in 2014 (and 8 percent in 1960).

That has exacerbated other gaps. “When it comes to the earnings gap between black and white men, we’ve gone all the way back to 1950,” Bayer added.

Taken together with other research, “these facts suggest … black workers in those circumstances are more likely to fall into poverty, to be plunged into it more deeply, and to find it more difficult to recover in its aftermath,” writes Georgetown University graduate student Gerald Taylor in “Unmade in America,” a report for the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

Indeed, the dissatisfaction among the black working class is even deeper than it is among whites. Only 40 percent of the black working class are satisfied with their household finances, compared with 63 percent of the white working class, according to a September Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN poll. Meanwhile, 56 percent of African-Americans identify as working class, compared with 42 percent of whites, according to the General Social Survey.

‘We need help’

In the small Georgia town where Euell Landrum grew up, jobs for young men were few and far between. So he ended up on the wrong side of the law for a burglary and, now in his 30s, is an Atlanta meat-cutter.

“Yeah, that definitely makes me working class,” he chuckles.

He couldn’t have voted for Trump given his felony conviction. But he says he would have voted for Trump, if he could have.

“We need help out here,” he says, indicating the bustle of Dekalb County’s Candler Avenue, a ramshackle collection of used tire shops, hair salons, and discount stores. As far as Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric, “I think he’ll change when he gets in there and realizes he’s got a country to run,” says Mr. Landrum.

Landrum is certainly in the minority among black voters. If the exit poll numbers stand, Trump will have done worse among black voters overall than every other Republican presidential candidate in a non-Obama election since the Roper Center at Cornell University started keeping statistics in 1976.

But his better showing among black men shows that some part of his message resonated.

For Clarence Rogers, that appeal began with a memory.

Mr. Rogers had been on a career path at a corrugated cardboard factory. But foreign competition led to cutbacks, including his job. Since then, he’s found jobs, “but none that paid that well.” Today, he runs a ramshackle Candler Avenue flea market in a strip mall.

During the campaign, Trump was criticized for what seemed to be monolithic views of the black community, often casting it as a violent inner-city slum. Mr. Rogers, however, didn’t dismiss Trump’s view.

“He’s got a strange way of saying it, but a lot of it is true – we are struggling out here,” he says.

Trump’s masculine message

Another part of Trump’s appeal could simply have been in its unabashed masculinity.

Certainly, it held little appeal for black women, who voted for Mrs. Clinton 94 to 4 percent.

But the growing black labor movement has been largely female-led and progressive, with black women heading the march to raise the minimum wage and equalize the justice system, says Keona Ervin, a history professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who looks at the role of black women in the struggle for economic equality.

Trump’s vision of the way forward in some ways has a more traditional feel. “Part of it is that Trump recognized the inherent dignity of men and their need to provide for families, that that’s part of their self-esteem and manhood,” says Carol Swain, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and author of “Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise.”

That has, at times, had a darker side, with Trump enjoying a kind of male camaraderie that explained away his comments about sexually assaulting women.

“Things that according to the media should have been devastating for Trump may easily have gained him a lot of votes among working class men, black and white, whereas black women take a dim view of that kind of behavior,” says Orlando Patterson, a sociologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “Anyone who knows anything about working-class notions of masculinity – men black and white – should have known that that wasn’t going to sink Trump.”

To Professor Patterson, a Trump critic, the president-elect is speaking about issues that some in the black working class can understand.

“The black working class is catching hell even more than the white working class, so I’m not surprised they’re being conned by a populist who at least is talking a language they’re desperate to hear, and willing to take a chance on,” he says.

In the end, that can have a positive effect, he adds. “So now they’re learning to take seriously the working class and their values, both good and bad.”

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