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Trump doesn't recognize the flaw in his message on race

Trump too often treats race relations as a box-checking exercise: black unemployment is low, so in his mind, he's an effective leader.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion with African American business and civic leaders, Sept. 2, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pa. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion with African American business and civic leaders, Sept. 2, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pa. 

As Black History Month continues, Gallup published a report on race relations yesterday that included some very discouraging results. Over the last couple of decades, Gallup has asked Americans about the state of black-white relations, and this year, the findings were a little different.

The latest poll marks the first time that more than half of black respondents have assessed black-white relations as somewhat or very bad. As late as the summer of 2013, most black Americans continued to give a more positive than negative assessment of the state of black-white relations in the U.S. And, less than a year after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 68% of black respondents assessed race relations in the country between whites and blacks as very or somewhat good. At that time, essentially the same percentage of whites, 70%, gave the same rating.Now, the two racial groups' ratings of black-white relations diverge by 14 points; whites' opinions have improved since 2015, while blacks' have gotten worse.

It was against this backdrop that Donald Trump hosted a White House reception late yesterday afternoon in recognition of African-American History Month, where the president emphasized the unemployment rate among black workers. And then he did it again. And again. And again.

The Republican added, "Nearly one million additional African Americans have found new jobs. As a -- really, and I think this -- we can really attribute it to regulatory cuts or as a result of our tax cuts. The largest tax cuts in the history of our country."

They're not the largest tax cuts in American history -- in fact, they don't even crack the top five -- and job growth has actually slowed since this president took office, despite tax breaks for the wealthy.

But under the circumstances, Trump's confusion about economic data isn't what makes this notable.

For the president, there often seems to be a reflex: when the focus turns to race, he points to unemployment.

Earlier this month, for example, CBS News conducted a national poll that found nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of race relations. Asked for his response, Trump said, "The African Americans have the best employment numbers in the history of our country.... And I think if you look at the numbers for African-American unemployment, best numbers they've had -- literally the best numbers they've had in history."

It's important to provide some relevant context, because Trump is taking credit for economic developments that began before he took office and that he had nothing do with creating.

But it's also worth appreciating the fact that the president treats this as a box-checking exercise. If African-American unemployment is low, it necessarily means, in Trump's mind, that he's doing a good job showing leadership on race relations.

That's wrong, but just as important, it reflects the perspective of someone who doesn't understand the issue nearly as well as he should.