Is Donald Trump racist? That question has hung over the presumptive Republican nominee for president as he has called Mexicans “rapists” and proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Lately, though, the question has taken on more urgency as Trump has repeatedly publicly attacked the judge who presides over Trump University class-action lawsuits. Calling the American-born Gonzalo Curiel a “Mexican," he said Curiel was therefore biased against him, and he added to the flurry of objections by suggesting that a Muslim judge might also be incapable of hearing a lawsuit involving any Trump entity.
In between these remarks he managed to offend by singling out a black man at one of his rallies, calling him “my African American” as if the fellow’s presence proved Trump was on the right side of the race issue.
For the long followers of Trump’s career, however, none of these incendiary remarks are especially surprising. Trump has a long record as a provocateur on matters of race and ethnicity.
It starts in 1973, when the United States Department of Justice went to court with a discrimination complaint against the Trump family business, which rented apartments across Brooklyn and Queens. Coming from the administration of Richard Nixon, who was hardly a civil rights agitator, the complaint was based on an investigation that found four different Trump employees confirming that applicants for leases were screened by race. One rental agent said Trump’s father had told him not to rent to blacks and that he actually wanted to reduce the number of African Americans in his buildings. Three doormen said they had been instructed to deflect blacks who came to Trump buildings to apply for apartments.
Though just 26 years old at the time, Donald Trump was already president of the Trump Organization. Rather than work with the government to bring the company into compliance with the law, as the New York apartment king Sam LeFrak had done, Trump retained one of the most notorious lawyers in the country, Roy Cohn, and commence an all-out legal war. Cohn, who had been Joe McCarthy’s chief inquisitor during the senator’s witch hunt for communists in the government, filed a $410 million lawsuit against the federal government and smeared the justice department attorneys with terms such as “storm troopers” and “Gestapo.” Trump complained in the press of “reverse discrimination” and alleged a “nationwide drive” to force landlords to “rent to welfare recipients.”
In the early 1970s, “African American” and “welfare” were used interchangeably and it was a well-established hallmark of dog-whistle politics, which allowed speakers to appeal to racist beliefs without using openly racist terms. More whites used welfare assistance than blacks, but welfare was regarded by some as a special benefit for minorities. In 1980 the coded language that matched welfare with undeserving minorities was revealed as Ronald Reagan spoke of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks.”
Trump’s countersuit in the fair housing case brought against his company was dismissed by a judge who considered it a "waste of paper." The Trump organization eventually accommodated the feds, agreeing to a protocol intended to address the mistakes of the past.
For two years Trump would be required to supply weekly lists of vacancies to the Urban League’s Open Housing Center. When vacancies opened up in buildings where fewer than 10 percent of the tenants were black or Hispanic, the center would then have three days to submit applications from minority clients who wanted those apartments. If qualified, they were to get preference by agreeing to advertise vacancies in newspapers that served the black community. Trump was also required to advertise vacancies in press outlets serving minority communities.
Although he wound up complying with federal regulators on his rental policies, Trump had successfully staked out his position on race. He was on the side of those whites who resented civil rights laws intended to redress racism.
"A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage"
In 1989, he told Bryant Gumbel in an interview, “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market...if I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really do believe they have the actual advantage today. “ In fact, all the serious studies refuted that. However his statement did serve as a kind of shout-out to those who were ignorant about the racial dynamics in the U.S. economy.
Earlier in that same year Trump helped fan the flames of racial resentment when black and Latino teens were arrested in the infamous “Central Park jogger” attack. Trump alone chose to pay for $85,000 worth of full-page newspaper ads trumpeting, in capital letters, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” In the text Trump objected to then-Mayor Ed Koch’s plea for peace: Mayor Koch stated that "hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so.”
As Trump and other New Yorkers indulged in hate and rancor, the five accused were subjected to intense interrogation, most without their parents present, and gave false confessions. After years in prison, they were exonerated by DNA evidence. A book and a documentary film on the case showed how fear and race played substantial roles in the wrongful convictions but Trump, who fanned the flames, remained steadfast in his views. When the men received compensation for their imprisonment, Trump denounced the payments and smeared the men by saying, “These young men do not exactly have the past of angels.”
"Black guys counting my money! I hate it"
Next in the Trump record on race came a 1991 book by John O’Donnell, who had been president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. O’Donnell quoted Trump saying,“ Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys wearing yarmulkes… Those are the only kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else…Besides that, I tell you something else. I think that’s guy’s lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks.”
O’Donnell’s report was shocking, but Trump did not contest it at the time. In 1997 he was interviewed for Playboy by author Mark Bowden and he confirmed that the O’Donnell book was “probably true.”
Two years later, when he was seeking the reform party nomination for president, Trump changed his tune. “I’ve never said anything like that,” he told Tim Russert on Meet The Press.
The flip-flop that saw Trump affirm John O’Donnell’s reporting and then deny it, must be weighed against Trump’s clear tendency to see things in racial terms and then say what he thinks.
A telling moment arose during a 1993 Congressional committee hearing on gambling casino operated by Indian tribes. Trump, who considered the tribes competitors, offered a flourish of insensitivity during his testimony when he said, “They don’t look like Indians to me and they don’t look like Indians to Indians.”
Trump also said that tribal gaming operators were somehow tied to organized crime and a scandal was about to erupt. "In the 19 years I have been on this committee, I have never seen such irresponsible remarks," Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) shouted back to Trump. (Decades later, the industry is still waiting for the scandal that Trump predicted.)
"Least racist person on earth"
In his businesses, which are private entities not subject to affirmative action policies, Trump did not establish an impressive record for diversity in the executive suite. He has spoken often about providing employment to minority workers, but in 2015 The New Yorker quoted a former Trump casino worker who said that in the 1980s black employees were hidden from view when Trump and his wife Ivana were around.
No black or Hispanic executive has ever played a prominent public role in the Trump business organization. However the foundation run by Eric Trump includes one African American vice president, Lynn Patton, who is described on the foundation website as “senior assistant” to Donald Trump’s three older adult children.
Last year Trump defended himself against complaints about his attitudes by claiming that he’s the “least racist person on earth.” Except for Patton, the Trump team has not presented to the press the name of a single key executive who is either Hispanic or African American.
Trump did manage to avoid race-related controversies for more than a decade—between the mid-1990s and 2010. Then, in 2011, Trump seized upon the conspiracy theory that suggested that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. This so-called “birther” idea had been discredited as false, and it was widely seen as a racially charged insult and had been abandoned by other leading Republicans including Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rep. Roy Blount of Missouri.
Trump took up the cause with relish. He also delivered innuendo about the president’s academic record and admission to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, implying that he was academically unworthy but benefitted from affirmative action.
Which brings us to the current presidential campaign and a candidate who is being criticized by leaders of his own party for the racial tone of his remarks on the stump and in press interviews. Trump said his statements about Judge Curiel have been "misconstrued."
Whether he’s mocking Chinese businesspeople with broken English, contorting his body to make fun of a disabled reporter, or calling out to “my African American," again and again, Trump has provoked anxiety and played to racial divisions. Earlier this week, Joe Scarborough, a lifelong Republican and host of the Morning Joe TV show called Trump’s remarks about Judge Curiel “completely racist.” He didn’t pass the same judgment on the man himself, but from what I see, the record would support him if he did.
Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book, The Truth about Trump.