Black Caucus to Trump: Follow our lead

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat, was among a half-dozen leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus who met Wednesday with President Donald Trump at the White House, telling him to follow their lead if he’s serious about addressing issues affecting the African-American community.

They delivered a 130-page policy document on African-American history and proposed solutions for advancing black families, such as summer job programs for youth and investing in transportation, education and job creation, Lawrence said.

They referenced the pitch that Trump made in his campaign to black and Hispanic voters, describing them as living in poverty in cities that are like “war zones.” “What do you have to lose?” Trump asked.

“We were very clear with the president that his rhetoric and his ‘what do you have to lose?’ comments and depicting African-Americans as broke, unemployed, living in crime-ridden areas, was a generalization that was hurtful,” Lawrence said in an interview.

The caucus leaders conveyed that Trump’s comments criticizing President Barack Obama created anxiety in the black community, and suggested Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims might be fueling anti-Muslim crime, Lawrence said.

“We said we need you to understand that has to stop. He did not push back. He listened. It was a first step. It was not a warm-fuzzy meeting, but it was about business,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence, whose district includes Hamtramck, Pontiac and parts of Detroit, is the secretary of the Congressional Black Caucus and sits on the group’s executive committee.

She said caucus leaders also stressed how Trump’s budget plan would cut programs that work in communities to reduce crime, and said the proposed budget does not invest in opportunities to help the poor.

Lawrence said she stressed to Trump the importance of investing in infrastructure, especially after the crisis in Flint, where families still are recovering from lead contamination of their drinking water.

The White House said Trump “voiced his desire to work with the CBC to improve educational and economic opportunities, enhance public safety, reduce the cost of prescription drugs, and invest in infrastructure.”

“Throughout my campaign, I pledged to focus on improving conditions for African-American citizens. This means more to me than anyone would understand or know,” Trump told the group, seated facing the president at a table in the Cabinet Room.

“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. America has spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas. I heard just recently in the Middle East, as of two months ago — $6 trillion. You know where we are over there, while neglecting the fate of children in Baltimore and Chicago and Detroit.”

Wednesday’s meeting came five weeks after a news conference where April Ryan, a White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Network, asked whether Trump would include the CBC in drafting his urban agenda. Trump oddly responded by asking Ryan, who is black, whether members of the caucus were friends of hers, and if she could set up the meeting.

The CBC went ahead with the meeting despite pressure from some not to meet with Trump.

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, said Tuesday that caucus members heard concerns from their constituents and others about the Trump administration, and were split on whether the caucus should meet with the president.

“I decided to accept the president’s meeting request because there is no one around him who can provide the perspective and expertise that the CBC can provide,” Richmond said in a statement.

Richmond said he hoped the president would leave the meeting with a better understanding of the challenges that African-Americans face, and how racism and discrimination helped create those challenges.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday that Trump invited the lawmakers to “continue to have a dialogue.”

“It’s not about just bringing in people who agree with you, it’s about people across the spectrum who can offer ideas,” Spicer said at the daily press briefing.

During his campaign, Trump was accused of raising racial tensions. Critics also pointed out that he was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for housing discrimination in the 1970s.

Trump visited a Detroit church, Great Faith Ministries International, in September as part of his effort to court black voters.

There, he conducted a taped interview with the pastor, Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, who faced criticism from local black leaders for hosting the controversial candidate. Jackson asked Trump whether he was racist.

“They called Romney a racist, they called McCain a racist, they call everybody that’s a Republican a racist,” Trump said in the interview. “Usually when they start to lose. ... But I am the least racist person that you’ve ever met.”

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