Donald Trump said he's done more for African Americans than any president. Historians disagree
President Donald Trump has often claimed credit for African American economic success, such as touting the African American unemployment rate on his watch. But amid swirling controversies over his tweets attacking Rep. Elijah Cummings and his heavily African American district in Maryland, he took it to a new level during July 30 remarks to reporters at the White House.
"What I've done for African Americans in two and a half years, no president has been able to do anything like it," Trump said. "Unemployment at the lowest level in the history of our country for African Americans — nobody can beat that. You look at poverty levels, they’re doing better than they’ve ever done before. So many things. Opportunity zones. Criminal justice reform — President Obama couldn’t get it done."
When we took a closer look, we found that Trump does have a point about some of the economic and policy details he mentioned. His campaign also pointed to a double-digit funding increase he sought and signed for historically black colleges and universities.
However, Trump overstated his own standing within history. It’s exceedingly difficult for Trump to top the landmark efforts by his predecessors in the White House, including Abraham Lincoln, who fought the Civil War and pushed the constitutional amendments that ended slavery, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who fought for and signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Because Trump’s boast is ultimately an opinion, we won’t put it to the Truth-O-Meter. However, we’ll take a look at the evidence and share the views of presidential historians.
The unemployment rates and poverty rates for African Americans are indeed at or near historical lows, as Trump indicated. Here’s the trend line for the unemployment rate:
It’s important to remember that the president is not all-powerful in shaping economic conditions in the country.
Both statistics show dramatic declines under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, suggesting that Obama could also claim credit.
"As with the economy generally, Trump likes to take credit for the long economic expansion, even though it is a continuation of an expansion that comprised nearly the entirety of Barack Obama’s tenure — June 2009 through January 2017," said John P. Frendreis, a political scientist at Loyola University Chicago.
To Trump’s point about opportunity zones and criminal justice legislation, more context is needed.
Trump did sign legislation to establish opportunity zones, which offer tax incentives to long-lasting investments in designated low-income areas in the United States. And he also signed the First Step Act, which enacted a variety of provisions to reduce sentences for nonviolent convicts.
But while Trump gets credit for signing these bills, he doesn’t get sole credit.
Opportunity zones were enacted as a small part of the Republican-backed tax bill, which was universally opposed by Democrats for other reasons. A more accurate gauge of support for the specific opportunity zone idea is the original bill promoting the concept. That bill attracted co-sponsorship from 36 Democrats and 45 Republicans.
And Democratic support for the First Step Act was even clearer. The bill passed the House 358-36, with all of the 36 votes against the bill coming from Republicans. And it passed the Senate 87-12, with all 12 no votes coming from the Republicans.
It’s also a canard to suggest, as Trump did, that Obama "couldn’t get it done," since the First Step Act built on actions Obama had taken.
Obama signed a law to reduce sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine, and he issued executive orders ending solitary confinement for juveniles and banning federal agencies from initially asking job applicants about past convictions. Obama also issued many executive clemencies for non-violent drug crimes and established task forces on policing and on sharing best practices between localities for reducing excessive arrests.
It’s impossible to ignore the impact of Lincoln’s actions on behalf of black Americans. "The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th and 14th Amendments – no president has done more for black Americans," said David Greenberg, Rutgers University historian and author of "Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency."
Second place, historians say, almost certainly belongs to President Johnson.
"His accomplishments on behalf of African Americans — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act — were historic," said University of Texas historian H.W. Brands, author of many books including "The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace." "Trump's accomplishments were incidental, side effects of a pro-corporate agenda," Brands said.
Johnson, a skilled legislator from his years in the Senate, deliberately crafted his agenda and pushed it through Congress with personal persuasion, to a far greater degree than Trump, historians say. (Republicans played a key role in passing the Democratic Johnson’s agenda.)
Jeffrey A. Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History, said a good way to compare the presidents on race is to gauge whether they are "ahead of their times" or "behind their times."
Engel sees Johnson and President Harry Truman, who moved to desegregate the military, as being among those who were ahead of their times, while President Woodrow Wilson was behind his, reversing some earlier policies that had banned discrimination in federal hiring.
"Trump in this sense is way behind the times," Engel said. "We have not had presidents since Ronald Reagan that so openly used race as a political weapon. Trump is blunt well beyond the norms of his time."
Several historians said Trump’s rhetoric has undercut his economic record.
"To be very honest, his posture as president really does not compare to anybody’s posture as president," at least in recent years, said Dwight D. Watson, a Texas State University historian who specializes in African-American history and the civil rights movement. "You might have to go back to Woodrow Wilson."
Trump’s personal attacks — combined with remarks such as saying a group of white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville included "good people" — are a jarring departure from longstanding public norms, said Max J. Skidmore, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of "Presidential Performance: A Comprehensive Review."
"On balance, the good that he has done has been largely, if not entirely, inadvertent," Skidmore said, "while the harm is deliberate and calculated to maintain his hold on political power."
CORRECTION, Aug. 1, 2019: This version corrects the speaker of the quote about Abraham Lincoln's presidency.