In Donald Trump’s worldview, black Americans live in “war zones” characterized by poverty, failing schools, no home ownership, no jobs and high crime. “You walk down the street, you get shot,” he says. Trump punctuates this tale of an immiserated black community with another perversion — that black people are suffering because they live in cities that are governed by Democrats.
This popular and self-serving conservative theme casts cities as wholly autonomous entities immune from outside forces such as state and federal policy. Frustratingly, it is one that Democrats and journalists have done little to counter. In an August 26 exchange with Republican National Committee communications director, Sean Spicer, MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle let stand Spicer’s claim that Chicago has suffered from “at least 50 years” of Democratic rule, and that Democrats have presided over the pervasive violence that afflicts Chicago’s urban communities.
Without glossing over the real failures of Democratic mayors, whose political machines have over the past three decades embraced neoliberalism and facilitated corporate capture of city politics to the detriment of working class communities, Ruhle might have asked Spicer: How are Chicago mayors solely responsible for the violence? How do guns get into these neighborhoods? Chicago has strict gun laws, but most traceable guns on its streets come from Indiana — home of Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence — which has lax gun laws.
She might also have asked Spicer: How can your party credibly bemoan gun deaths when it opposes the most sensible gun control legislation? Isn’t it disingenuous to pretend that gun proliferation, and the outsize role of the NRA — a GOP ally — in the national gun discourse plays no role in the crisis of gun violence? Or that the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down the District’s handgun ban, has not led to the proliferation of firearms?
The claim of sole mayoral responsibility for social and economic problems in urban neighborhoods is belied by another reality: Millions of African Americans live under GOP gubernatorial rule and have been subject to some of the most toxic social and economic policies in recent decades.
Currently, 31 states have Republican governors, many of which have sizeable black populations. They include: New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky and Illinois. Twenty-three states are designated Republican “trifectas,” meaning the GOP controls the governorships and both houses of the legislature.
GOP governors and legislatures have enacted massive budget cuts in education, healthcare and other services while slashing taxes for wealthy residents and corporations, with demonstrably bad consequences for their citizens. The state of Kansas is now broke, thanks to historic tax cuts pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 and 2013, including an income tax exemption for 330,000 businesses, which is costing the state up to $250 million a year in revenue. As a result, Kansas has cut spending in higher education, Medicaid health coverage for the needy, disabled and elderly, and transportation.
According to a survey funded by the Texas State Teachers Association, budget cuts, along with revenue-draining tax cuts have resulted in nearly a third of Texas teachers having to work a second job during the school year “to support themselves and their families.”
In Louisiana, former Gov. Bobby Jindal left a legacy of budget cuts and tax cuts that put the state in economic disrepair, even as the state is increasingly buffeted by stronger rainstorms and floods — not to mention the yet unfinished recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In March, the news blog ThinkProgress reported that the “flood of red ink” that Jindal left behind is such that Louisiana “may soon cease to function as a state in far more fundamental ways.” The state, according to the article, “will barely be able to keep the lights on unless politicians can find $3 billion in new revenue in the coming days.” Louisiana faces a $2 billion budget gap for the 2016 – 2017 budget year. That’s more than twice the annual budget for the entire Louisiana State University system, according to The Times-Picayune.
GOP governors in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky have mounted a radical reshaping of higher education that involves deep budget cuts. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been the most aggressive, cutting $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system and requiring university employees to contribute to their pensions and health care. Walker also made significant budget cuts in K‑12 education.
Twenty-six of the 31 states with Republican governors are decidedly “right to work” — they prohibit unions from collecting dues to underwrite their operations. The attack on union rights and massive public sector budget cuts — both top GOP policy priorities — have particularly hurt black communities.
Labor scholars Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce point out that black workers are overrepresented — at 19.7 percent — in the public sector. The erosion of these public sector jobs is undermining the economic health and stability of urban neighborhoods whose residents depend on public revenues for their livelihoods. University of California, Berkeley labor economist Steve C. Pitts has noted in the The American Prospect that while the media portrays unions and the black community as separate groups without common members or common interests, “black workers are disproportionately union members. … 12.1 percent of all workers (16 years or older) held union cards, while 14.3 percent of black workers were union members.”
On social policy, the attack on abortion rights — most pronounced in GOP governed states — disproportionately affects poor women of color, who have less access to private medical care and lack the resources to seek alternative reproductive health care services. According to National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), in 2013, some 24 states enacted 52 anti-choice measures. Needless to say, for black women who live in these states, what is hurting them are not “Democrat mayors” but GOP governors and legislators.
The fact is, cities are substantially affected by state policy. In Michigan, the lead poisoning of Flint was a direct byproduct of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s policies. Snyder’s imposition of “emergency management” effectively revoked democracy in mostly black majority cities and towns. Successive emergency managers abandoned Flint’s reliance on Detroit as its source of clean water and switched to water from the polluted Flint River in 2014. In fact the General Motors plant in Flint had stopped using the city water because it corroded car parts. The unelected dictators made this decision even though, according to The Washington Post, Detroit was willing to continue providing “high-quality water under a short-term contract.” Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan put it this way: “You cannot separate what happened in Flint from the state’s extreme emergency-management law.”
In what has become a microcosm of Flint, residents of the West Calumet Public Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana — all 1,100 of them, including 670 children — face relocation because of high levels of lead and arsenic contamination. The New York Times reports that although the area was designated a Superfund site in 2009, residents wonder why “neither the state nor the EPA told them just how toxic their soil was much sooner.” This official neglect is part of the broader context of GOP efforts to defund the EPA. But for Indiana — a GOP stronghold — it seems the lives of these black people was simply not a priority. Pence has not even visited with the victims.
The role of mass incarceration — fueled by state and federal policy — as a driver in destabilizing black families and communities cannot the overstated. Sociologists Sara Wakefield and Christopher Uggen have pointed to “diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mobility, limited housing options, restricted access to essential social entitlements and reduced neighborhood cohesiveness” as a direct consequence of the so-called war on crime.
Federal action or inaction is also implicated in the marginalization of many urban neighborhoods. Cities depend on federal grants and subsidies — directly and indirectly through the states — in the areas of transportation, housing, healthcare, workplace safety, child nutrition, education, environmental protection, infrastructure maintenance and construction, jobs programs and more. It goes without saying that federal budget cuts in these areas, which have been unrelenting in recent decades, directly affect the quality of life for city residents and workers.
According to the advocacy group Community Catalyst, federal cuts to Medicaid have reduced access to essential health services. The cuts have increased out-of-pocket and co-payment costs for beneficiaries, rolled back income eligibility of pregnant women, reduced the scope of screenings for breast and cervical cancer and thereby lessening chances of survival, driven up costs borne by the states and imposed benefit restrictions, including dental and prescription coverage.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that 20 governors — 17 of them Republican — have rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The people who are affected by these draconian policies are poor and disproportionately African American. Again, they are being hurt not by “Democrat mayors” but by GOP governors in the service of a hardline ideology.
The decision by George W. Bush to invade Iraq — while twice cutting taxes for wealthy people — will have a lasting, cascading effect on cities and their residents. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the eventual cost of the war to be between “5 and 7 trillion dollars.” No one can argue that this obscene expenditure has no effect on the quality of life for the people of this country, with the burden, as usual, falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable. Let’s also not forget the near unanimous GOP opposition in 2009 to President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, which was meant to create jobs and boost the economy. The final stimulus package was weakened by unnecessary tax cuts demanded by Republicans which, many economists argue, lowered its projected overall impact on job creation. How is that the fault of “Democrat mayors?”
The 1999 bipartisan congressional repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a linchpin of Depression-era regulation of financial institutions is partly implicated in the 2008 financial meltdown. Black communities were particularly hard hit by the ensuing sub-prime mortgage lending crisis. A report by United for a Fair Economy concluded that the mortgage crisis has resulted in wealth loss for African American families of between $71 billion and $92 billion, not to mention the neighborhood blight caused by the failure of banks to maintain the properties they repossessed. Again, how is that the fault of black “Democrat mayors?”
It is intellectually dishonest to imply that state and federal policies do not play an outsize role in the condition of urban black communities. Cities are not autonomous hubs that shape their own social and economic destinies unencumbered by external forces. Trump’s and his surrogates’ characterization of American cities as uncontrollable “war zones” ruled by “Democrat mayors” — like the “welfare queens” trope of previous decades — deliberately omits mentioning the ruinous social and economic policies implemented by state governorships and legislatures (most of which are controlled by the GOP) and the federal government. These policies have torn apart — and continue to tear apart — the social and economic fabric of cities, frustrating the dreams of millions of African Americans. We must stop allowing Trump, his surrogates and GOP leaders to pretend otherwise.