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Trumps says more jobs will help race relations. If only it were so simple.

Donald Trump
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Donald Trump

President Trump has a simple answer for racial tension in the United States: jobs.

In his contentious news conference Tuesday, he argued that his administration would create millions of jobs and stronger growth in wages, and that this would have a "tremendous positive impact on race relations."

"What people want now, they want jobs," Mr. Trump said. "They want great jobs with good pay. And when they have that, you watch how race relations will be."

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But there's not much evidence in recent history that racial attitudes are shaped by the ups and downs of the overall economy. Certainly jobs and wages influence Americans' sense of well-being and their worldview. But attitudes about race relations seem to be overwhelmingly shaped by developments unrelated to things like the unemployment rate or growth in household incomes.

For example, Gallup polling shows that Americans' racial attitudes were stable for years amid very different economic environments. The proportion of respondents who said relations between whites and blacks are very good or somewhat good was nearly identical in 2002, near the worst of the early 2000s recession; to what it was in 2007, the peak of that decade's expansion; and to 2008, when the Great Recession was underway.

The survey results around racial attitudes changed not in the immediate aftermath of the recession, when the unemployment rate soared to 10 percent and jobs were scarce, but in 2015, when the economy was back on its feet.

In the middle of 2013, when the jobless rate was 7.5 percent, 70 percent of adults thought race relations were somewhat good or very good. By 2015, unemployment was down to a healthy 5.3 percent, but only 47 percent gave that positive reading of race relations.

One likely reason for the shift is the rise of protest movements over police killings of African-Americans. Those protests took off in August 2014, when a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo. Negative polling on the state of race relations has persisted in the years since, even as the economy has continued improving. As a candidate, Donald Trump stressed the idea that immigrants were stealing American jobs.

Similarly, more distant examples also show racial attitudes moving based on noneconomic events. Perceptions of racial animus spiked in 1992, amid riots in Los Angeles, but quickly improved the next year. And the late 1990s, when the economy was booming and wage growth was strong, featured consistently negative assessments of race relations in public opinion polls.

That's not to argue that the economy and race relations have no connection. White Americans may well be more comfortable with minority groups' rising economic status when they themselves have secure jobs and rising incomes. But for nonwhites, a strong economy is not a cure-all. Janelle Jones, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute's program studying race and the economy, argues that nationwide averages don't tell you everything you need to know about the economic experiences of African-Americans and other minority groups.

"The idea that the availability of jobs is the way to solve race relations is misguided," Ms. Jones said, in that a job alone doesn't assure a stable, prosperous standard of living.

"Even if you have jobs available, there's still discrimination in pay and promotion," she said. "Being able to have a job that pays well and comes with benefits, to buy a house in a place that isn't racially segregated, to send your kids to a school that is not racially segregated, these are parts of what makes for a quality economic outcome."

And then there's the question of what the Trump administration's policy agenda would do for those types of opportunities. Job growth has remained steady in the first seven months of the Trump administration, with the United States adding an average of 179,000 jobs a month since February compared with 187,000 a month last year. But wage growth has been only slightly faster than inflation, with average hourly earnings up 2.5 percent over the last year. That number was 2.9 percent in December.

"It has tended to be the case that when the pie gets bigger, there is more willingness to share some of the increase," said Margaret Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute. "However, it is not clear that the number of jobs generated by the actions the president has mentioned will provide the quantity or quality of jobs that would be needed to have this impact."

Even if job growth and wages were to accelerate further, Mr. Trump also promised big things specifically for inner-city America in his comments on Tuesday. "We are spending a lot of money on the inner cities," Mr. Trump said. "We are doing far more than anybody has done with respect to the inner cities. It is a priority for me."

Mr. Trump's budget, it is worth noting, would cut spending by the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 15 percent.