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Trump lacks nuance, but speaks 'modicum of truth' about black America

Donald Trump has claimed that African-Americans should vote for him because their communities are in economic disarray, and while many have dismissed his "what do you have to lose?" pitch as cynical and misleading, the Republican nominee has occasionally recognized real problems, experts said.

Facing a narrow path to electoral victory, the New York businessman has made overtures to the African-American community — a constituency that tends to vote Democratic.

"We're going to rebuild our inner cities because our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they've ever been in before, ever, ever, ever," Trump said at a rally in North Carolina. "You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street. They're worse, I mean honestly, places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities."

Over a hundred supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump rallied on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
Albin Lohr-Jones | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images
Over a hundred supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump rallied on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

Building on these comments during the presidential debates, Trump added that African-Americans "are living in hell," and reiterated that "they have no education" and "they have no jobs."

Experts told CNBC Trump's analysis contains a grain of truth, but totally lacks in necessary nuance and historical context.

"It is absolutely false to say that things are the worst that they have ever been," said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute's program on race, ethnicity and the economy.

"We know that there are definitely communities in this country with excessively high rates of unemployment and poverty for African-Americans," she added. "But that by no means can be applied to the African-American experience in general."

But that's not to say the economic picture for African-Americans isn't lagging and deserving of focused attention.

In comparison to other demographics, Wilson notes, African-American communities face a racial disparity "that doesn't seem to change."

In recent decades, racial achievement gaps have remained stubbornly wide. Black unemployment has persistently been twice the national average and income inequality has actually widened, Wilson said, citing her own studies.

"We find that these wage gaps have actually gotten larger over the last 40 years," she said. "A big driving factor for that trend is racial discrimination, and that is something that we are less willing to address in a frank and straightforward manner."

However, Wilson also said that black Americans' economic reality mirrors the rest of the country in that it ranges from people with advanced degrees to those who did not graduate high school. She argued that a framework more nuanced than Trump's would acknowledge this kind of economic diversity without ignoring racial inequality.

In fact, Wilson said economic performance for black people is "without a doubt" improving, noting that the last few years have offered African-Americans a strengthening labor market.

Government data supports Wilson's statement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the black unemployment rate has been cut in half since 2011 from its post-recession high of 16 percent to a just over 8 percent today.

Wilson recommends that if lawmakers care about addressing the economic issues black people face, they should continue to push to get the American economy to full employment and vigorously enforce antidiscrimination laws. While working to ameliorate racial inequality, she said, it's important to remember that African-Americans are not monolithic.

Its this attention to nuance that's severely lacking in Trump's message on race, experts said.

Eddie Glaude Jr., the chair of Princeton's department of African-American studies, said Trump's statements on race occasionally contain some accuracy.

"Part of what is confusing is that there is a modicum of truth in [Trump's] description of the state of certain communities in black America," he told CNBC.

Those communities to which Trump regularly points include places like Baltimore, where in 2013, the unemployment rate for black men between the ages of 20 and 24 was 37 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earlier this year, Trump said, "Fifty-eight percent and even 59 percent of African-American youth has no job." And while economists have dismissed his claims as hyperbolic — the rate is actually more like 25 percent — disproportionately high unemployment remains a crucial issue for African-Americans.

But it is Trump's frequent, controversial comments such as his endorsement of mass deportation, stop and frisk, and bans on Muslims that undercut the truth in his remarks on race, Glaude said, claiming that the Republican nominee is discussing these issues "in bad faith."

That is, Glaude (along with many pundits) said that when Trump talks about African-Americans, he isn't really speaking to black people, but rather "to white voters trying to assure them that he is not the racist that they take him to be."

Still, Glaude said, the problems Trump highlights should not be ignored.

"Trump is trading in stereotypes and generalizations," Glaude said. "And because of the messenger, we are not really taking seriously what is happening in some of our communities."