Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speeches and faux outreach to African Americans before all-white crowds in Michigan and Milwaukee in August attracted scrutiny. During his trademark political rallies, Trump remarked that African Americans “live in poverty” and that their schools were “no good.” He added high unemployment to the list of woes troubling African American voters “living in the inner city.” Clarence Page rightly noted that Trump’s “vision of black urban life seems to have come from watching HBO’s “The Wire.” Black communities for Trump are unsafe, “inner cities.”
Trump’s remarks reinforced African American stereotypes and reflected not only a cynical politics, but also a belief that “Blackness” is a mark of inferiority, decay, and failure. Impulsively, surrogates responded to these negative characterizations with defensive, counter narratives of success. They argued that African Americans are not nearly as poor and their communities not nearly as unsafe as Trump would lead his audiences to believe. There are, however, significant limitations and consequences associated with these counter narratives rooted in a racial vindicationist intellectual tradition.
There has been speculation about the substance of Trump’s statements and his intended audience. However, none of Trump’s comments and behavior have been particularly surprising. African American leaders’ responses have been equally predictable. Take, for example, Executive Director of the National Urban League Marc Morial’s response. He called Trump’s depiction of African American life, an “inaccurate portrayal of the community.” He conceded that “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.”
To be sure, Morial represents an organization preoccupied with urban issues. However, nothing prohibits Morial from complicating the narrative more. Much like the vindicationist public intellectuals of the past, Morial focused on defending Black progress from Trump’s glaring inaccuracies. The racial vindicationist intellectual tradition provided a counter narrative to racist, anti-Black myths which posited that African Americans were irrational beings without a culture or a past. W.E.B. Du Bois, a racial vindicationist, frequently defended African-descended people, writing that “to all intents and purposes,” African Americans were, “essentially equal in intellect, enterprise, morality and physique.”1
Social Anthropologist St. Clair Drake coined the term “vindicationist” in an article entitled “Anthropology and the Black Experience,” explaining that “a special genre of intellectual activity emerged among literate Blacks in the eighteenth-century — what may be called the literature of “racial vindication.” Further, he wrote, “Free Negroes during slavery, and educated freedman thereafter, sought to disprove slander, answer pejorative allegations, and criticize pseudo-scientific generalizations about people of African descent.”2
Recent African American responses designed to refute Trump’s claims about the status of African Americans reflect this vindicationist bent. This positionality allows for the construction of a defensive counter narrative without making enough discursive room for a proactive vision of progress that transcends tired tropes about African American life. Though a vindicationist orientation is not altogether unnecessary in our current political landscape, such responses are inadequate, because they fail to capture the complexity of life in African American communities, which are increasingly suburban and southern. This hinders public discourse on the wide range of problems requiring new strategies in non-urban contexts, such as police brutality and access to affordable housing.
The African American demographic shift, from the urban to the suburban, should signal a change in the way politicians and leaders talk about inequalities, race, and place. For example, from 2000-2010, the Black population increased most, not in inner cities, but in the suburbs of four southern cities – Atlanta, Washington, DC, Dallas, and Houston. Reversing the trends created by the Great Migration, 55% of the African American population lived in South by 2010. These demographic shifts also represent new challenges for African American life. Black migration to suburbs has been concurrent with gentrification in inner cities. Often seeking affordable housing, suburban African Americans encounter places in which opportunity, capital, and social services become inaccessible over time.
Further, African Americans living in suburban (and rural) communities encounter police brutality regardless of their income. For example, since 2013, incidences of racial violence and police brutality in suburban places, rural roadsides, and small towns have been on the rise. We need only recall Sandra Bland’s fatal traffic stop on a Waller County, Texas roadside, Ferguson residents’ rebellion in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, or Trayvon Martin’s murder in a gated community in Florida. None of these incidents occurred in so-called inner cities.
Political debates based on 2-dimensional characterizations of African American life have significant ramifications including making invisible African American displacement from urban centers and their experience of the suburbanization of poverty. Thus, issues of community control, safety, and gentrification are undermined in a Trump-or vindicationist-dominated debate. Proving that we aren’t all poor or that we do not all live in unsafe neighborhoods are less important arguments to make than asserting, instead, that African Americans, regardless of income are more susceptible to being victimized by law enforcement. The vindicationist and Trump narratives obscure suburban issues with larger ripple effects such as the decline in Black homeownership.
African American -led public discourse must reflect the variety of municipalities, spaces, and communities in which institutional racism thrives as well as the diversity of responses to those problems. Too few African American surrogates contest assumptions about where African Americans live now and they fail to offer (or are asked to provide) nuanced responses to challenges resulting from these population shifts. Older leaders like Morial can look to Black Lives Matter for cues on addressing the complex conditions that create today’s inequality. The Movement for Black Lives (MBL) recently issued its “Vision for Black Lives,” policy demands which emphasized a sophisticated understanding of intergovernmental, cross-jurisdictional policies impacting Black life regardless of context. Defensive, vindicationist rhetoric has to be coupled with a consistent critique of the operating assumptions about African American communities. Leaders should develop stronger counter narratives to Trump and others that encompass the new forms persistent problems take due to demographic shifts. These counter narratives should reflect the variety of voices, positionalities, and communities—urban, rural, suburban—African Americans inhabit.