Trump’s attack on John Lewis is also a racist smear against black communities

The president-elect often suggests cities are hell holes.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File
Georgia Rep. John Lewis CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

In response to a series of tweets from President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday that attacked civil rights legend John Lewis for taking no action to improve his “crime infested” district that’s in “horrible shape” and “falling apart,” much of the country immediately jumped to Lewis’ defense.

Deeply offended by Trump’s suggestion that Lewis — who has been beaten and arrested for marching for racial justice and voting rights — is “all talk and no action,” dozens of lawmakers fired back on Twitter with examples of his significant contributions over the past several decades.

But this response to Trump’s tweets sidesteps the fact that, in addition to personally insulting Lewis, the president-elect’s comments also rely on an offensive racial stereotype about the black community — one that Trump has a very long history of parroting.

Accusing Lewis, a black congressman who represents a majority black district, of blithely presiding over a terrible, crime-ridden hell hole reveals a lot about Trump’s assumptions about places where black people live.

Lewis’ district is actually prosperous and relatively safe. But Trump repeatedly conflates black Americans, crime, poverty, and inner cities to paint a dire (and totally inaccurate) picture of the struggling African American community that he claims desperately needs his help.

During his campaign, Trump said that black people living in America have “no health care, no education, no anything” and described their lives as “a total catastrophe.” He said black Americans are “in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in” and essentially made the pitch that they should elect him president because they had nothing to lose. He said he would be a good leader for African American people because he wanted to “do things that haven’t been done, including fixing and making our inner cities better for the African American citizens that are so great.”

Trump is not an anomaly for speaking about race, crime, cities, and blight in this way. “Inner city” has long been a thinly veiled code word that white people, and particularly politicians, use as a stand-in for people of color.

But these sentiments from Trump are not grounded in reality. Thanks to gentrification, cities are not synonymous with poverty, and are in fact getting whiter and wealthier. The crime rates in cities is declining. Meanwhile, about half of black Americans live in suburban or rural areas. While structural inequalities and the United States’ legacy of racist housing and education policies certainly remain barriers to increasing wealth among black communities, most black Americans are not living in poverty.

Still, Trump’s offensive assumptions about “inner cities” continue to manifest themselves — sometimes, in the people he surrounds himself with.

For instance, the only black person who’s been tapped to serve in Trump’s cabinet, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, is set to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development despite having zero policy credentials, because since he grew up poor apparently he’ll understand cities and public housing. And Trump met with comedian Steve Harvey on Friday to discuss how Harvey and Carson can work together to help “bring about some positive change in the inner cities.”

Trump’s attacks on John Lewis on Saturday morning can’t be separated from the president-elect’s overall effort to lean on these racial dog whistles — and flirt with anti-black rhetoric that appeals to white supremacists.

The people who actually live in Lewis’ district, for one, see through Trump’s tweets. On Saturday, many of them responded by tweeting out photos of their community that prove they don’t actually live in a crime-infested dystopia that’s been sorely neglected by John Lewis.