Throughout his bid for the White House, then-candidate Donald J. Trump had an annoying habit of treating all African Americans as a homogeneous group of people living in communities mired in crime, poverty and hopelessness. When asking for Black voters’ support, almost always before a rally crowd in which there were very few people of color, he would ask, “What do you have to lose?”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus sought to answer that very question, when the group had its first meeting with President Trump on March 22. The entire caucus had been invited to the White House but CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) wanted to present a businesslike front and avoid being used as a photo opportunity as many have charged was the case with the HBCU leaders who met with the president earlier in the month.
Therefore, despite the objections of some members, he limited participation to the executive board, which included Rep. Andre Carson (Indiana), Anthony Brown (Maryland), Brenda Lawrence (Michigan), Gwen Moore (Wisconsin), and Karen Bass (California), all Democrats. Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. James Clyburn (South Carolina) also attended.
Trump, in his opening remarks, echoed his campaign trail rhetoric. “Throughout my campaign, I pledged to focus on improving conditions for African American citizens. This means more to me than anybody would understand or know,” he said. “Every American child has a right to grow up in a safe community, to attend great schools, to graduate with access to high-paying jobs.” The president added that the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars overseas “while neglecting the fate of American children in cities like Baltimore and Chicago and Detroit.”
Such statements strike many Black lawmakers and leaders as hypocritical given the adverse impact they believe the White House’s budget proposal would have on African-American communities, as well as views held by several of his cabinet secretaries, most notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that threaten to reverse hard-won gains. They also believe that part of Trump’s problem is that he is uninformed and doesn’t have the right people in place to educate him.
That’s why the group arrived at the White House armed with a 125-page document titled “We Have A Lot to Lose: Solutions to Advance Black Families in the 21st Century.” The tome provides an overview of the CBC “to enlighten the president on the history and diversity of African-Americans.” It also highlights problems related to the caucus’ top priorities, including economic, environmental and criminal justice; health care; and voting rights. Perhaps more important, it offers what the document describes as “bold policy solutions.”
Richmond told reporters after the meeting that while the president has met with various African Americans, the CBC is the only group of Black elected officials who develop federal policy and can also offer diverse viewpoints.
“There were many areas where we disagreed with the policy solutions prescribed by his budget, but it was a meeting where both sides listened and where we were very candid about disagreements,” Richmond said. “But the surprising part was that when we talked about the goals, there were more similarities than there were differences. The route to get there is where I think you may see differences and part of that is just education and life experiences.”
According to Richmond, the president offered to engage regularly with the caucus and agreed to make members of his cabinet available as well as to work on solutions. The CBC members also gave the president letters to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Sessions, written by the Education and Judiciary committees’ ranking Democrats, Reps. John Conyers (Michigan) and Bobby Scott (Virginia) in which they expressed major areas of concern.
“Each of us handled separate areas. I think it was a positive first start, and we’re going to continue to dialogue,” said Rep. Bass.
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who also is the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is less optimistic than some of his fellow CBC members.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the CBC leadership to try to reach out to the president. I also doubt that, based on his history, he will do anything to help us,” Ellison said. “But still, you’ve got to ask. You don’t want him to be able to say, ‘Well, they never asked.’”
There were some areas of agreement, Richmond noted, including infrastructure spending, which will create jobs, and enabling all American children opportunities to reach their full potential despite their socio-economic status. The latter is an example of a goal the two sides share, he noted, cautioning more than once that “the question is, do we have the same path to get there?” The president’s approach is more “law and order,” he added, while the CBC is more focused on building ladders of opportunity through initiatives like summer jobs and education.
Richmond told reporters that the discussion was very candid and the group even shared the objections they received from constituents, members of their own Caucus and others to the meeting with Trump because of his campaign rhetoric that frequently offended them, and policies that give more to the rich than the poor.
“We never thought we’d agree on everything at this meeting, but the one thing we did ask was for both sides to be candid so that we could represent our constituents to the best of our ability,” the Louisiana lawmaker said. “Trump listened and we talked, and we proposed a lot of solutions, many of which I think he had not heard before. We’re going to keep advocating. Where we agree, we will agree; where we disagree we will fight with the passion that this caucus has had since 1971, when our first meeting was with President Nixon. We’re not called the conscience of the Congress for nothing.”