CINCINNATI — When Donald Trump slammed majority black Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess", 80-year-old Mary Harper found herself recalling a painful memory from decades ago.
It was the 1960s, and Harper, who is black, had been working at the Cincinnati offices of a big national insurance company that was just beginning to hire more African Americans for entry level jobs. As she stepped on the elevator one day, a white worker turned to her and sneered, "I guess they're hiring more roaches now."
Trump’s attacks last week on Rep. Elijah Cummings, who is black, and his Maryland Congressional district took Harper back to that deeply hurtful moment in her own life.
“Trump’s racist words have been giving me flashbacks,” Harper told USA TODAY this week at a meeting of activists in a Cincinnati church sanctuary. “You never forget the hurt of something like that, but why am I being reminded of it by the president?”
Days after the president's attack on Cummings, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Harper’s hometown Thursday for a political rally at the U.S. Bank Arena downtown. The visit to Ohio’s third-largest city, one with a long history of racial tension, segregation and inequality, comes as the president has thrown a series of racial broadsides at opponents as he ramps up his reelection effort.
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The Cummings insult, as well as a recent invective targeting four Democratic House lawmakers, all women of color, has drawn criticism from Democrats that the president is engaging in a cynical ploy to stoke white voter resentment and rile up his base. But Trump has faced minimal pushback from Republicans over his attacks on African American lawmakers.
For his part, Trump insists that he's not racist, but rather simply calling out Democratic leaders who he says are doing too little to stem violence and poverty in some of the nation's biggest cities.
With his latest big arena rally, Trump has chosen as a backdrop what at times has been one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation.
A racial wage gap persists even among the city’s most educated residents —Cincinnati’s white workers with college degrees earn an average of $5 per hour more than black peers with the same level of education, according to a 2018 study by All-In Cincinnati, a coalition of groups advocating for greater inclusivity.
The Cincinnati metro area also has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, disproportionately impacting minority communities. Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, sees more than 12,000 evictions annually, according to a University of Cincinnati study published last year.
'As Christians don't we have to speak out?'
At the same time, the city — which has seen its white population increase over the last decade as its black population has declined — is in the midst of a building boom. There are now 55 development projects under construction in the region with a total expected investment of more than $2.6 billion, according to the Cincinnati Business Courier tally of projects.
“Cincinnati is at a racial crossroads,” said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, who leads the New Prospect Baptist Church, one of the city’s prominent African American congregations.
Lynch added that he was dismayed by the president's recent attacks on the minority lawmakers. More disappointing, he said, is the silence from white Evangelicals about the president's actions.
"I understand you may support him for his economic views or because you like who he may appoint to the Supreme Court," Lynch said. "But as Christians don't we have to speak out?"
City Councilwoman and President Pro Tem Tamaya Dennard said the story of Cincinnati is a tale of two cities: one where affluent, predominantly white pockets are thriving and the other where predominantly black neighborhoods are treading water or even moving backward.
During a meeting this week with a group of developers and local real estate officials, Dennard, who is black, lamented that the council had recently passed $220 million in development deals that failed to consider lower income residents. Many of the developers asked for subsidies for their projects but none included an affordable housing component in their plans, she said.
“I don’t want Cincinnati to be white-washed,” Dennard told the group. “I don’t want to look up one day and find that Cincinnati is all white people … We have to get away from being one of the most segregated cities in the country. That’s not acceptable. That’s not OK.”
Jailing of black judge spurs protests
The city has endured several racially fraught moments over the last two decades, and the jailing of a black judge last week again sparked outcry in the black community.
Black politicians, activists and community leaders held protests in the city to voice their anger over the jailing of former Judge Tracie Hunter, the county’s first African American juvenile court judge.
Hunter was ordered to begin serving a six-month prison sentence for a 2014 conviction for unlawful interest in a public contract that stemmed from charges that she used her position to give confidential documents to her brother.
The sentence was originally handed down in 2015 but wasn’t immediately executed as Hunter appealed her conviction. State law does not require a prison sentence.
Several Cincinnati politicians, including Mayor John Cranley, wrote to Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker, calling on him to spare her a prison sentence.
But Dinkelacker declined, ordering that Hunter begin serving the sentence. Video of Hunter going limp as sheriff’s deputies dragged her out of the courtroom made international news.
Even before Hunter’s sentence was imposed last week, the case was a flashpoint with many African American leaders who argue Hunter was maliciously targeted because she sought to reform a juvenile justice system that statistics show disproportionately and ineffectively impacts boys and girls of color.
"She represented a paradigm shift," said Vanessa Enoch, a supporter of Hunter. "She said when she came in that we're going to rehabilitate children now. She did not fit the old narrative of the system of making sure there are heads in the beds so the connected contractors continue to get paid."
Harper and about 200 activists and community members gathered Monday at New Prospect Baptist Church to discuss their next steps, including a potential economic boycott, a media campaign and more protests — one is planned for outside Trump’s rally.
“We have to show (the city) that this is not the end,” said state Sen. Cecil Thomas, who represents a Cincinnati district in the Ohio Assembly. “They think we’re going to fizzle out? They haven’t seen anything yet.”
Cincinnati has seen other flare-ups of racial tension in recent years.
The city saw protests following the July 2015 death of Samuel DuBose, a black motorist who was fatally shot during a traffic stop by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing.
The former officer was charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter, but juries were unable to reach a verdict during two trials. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters declined to try Tensing again following the two mistrials.
In 2001, Cincinnati suffered more than $3.6 million in property damage after riots broke out following the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by a white police officer, Stephen Roach. Thomas, who was unarmed, was shot after officers chased him to execute open arrest warrants for misdemeanor offenses, most of which were related to traffic violations.
Weeks before the riots, the American Civil Liberties Union and other local groups had filed a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Department alleging decades of racial profiling.
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It remains to be seen if Trump will continue the attacks at the Cincinnati rally, which his campaign billed as an opportunity for the president to tout 50-year lows in American unemployment and a strong economy.
But Trump is showing no signs of letting up on the divisive rhetoric.
In addition to his attacks against Cummings, Trump caused a furor earlier in July when he took to Twitter to call on four freshman lawmakers — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
All four lawmakers are women of color; three of the four were born in the United States and all are citizens.
His feud with the liberal lawmakers — known as the “Squad” — was further inflamed when the crowd at a Trump rally two weeks ago in Greenville, N.C., erupted in chants of “Send her back!” after the president singled out Omar, who was born in Somalia, for more criticism.
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The president earlier this week declared himself “the least racist person in the world” and insisted his language wouldn’t hurt him at the ballot box in 2020. At the same time, Trump labeled the black civil rights activist and MSNBC commentator Al Sharpton “a con man” after Sharpton traveled to Baltimore to denounce Trump.
“I think I’m helping myself,” Trump said Tuesday about his attacks on minority lawmakers.
“The African American community is so thankful at what I’ve been doing,” Trump claimed. “They’ve been calling me and saying finally somebody is telling the truth.”
A narrow majority of voters say President Donald Trump is a racist, according to a Quinnipiac University poll published Tuesday.
Fifty-one percent of voters say they think Trump is a racist. Forty-five percent say they do not think so, and 5% don't know. Opinions break down along party lines.
Bob Huser, 59, of Delhi Township and a Trump supporter, said in an interview that he hadn't been following the controversy closely, but has found too often that "there’s a small group of people on both sides (of the political spectrum) that make it much more in your face than reality would demand."
"I think the extreme edges on both sides of the argument need to become adults," Huser said.
Trump needs to hang on to Ohio
Trump returns to Cincinnati — his fourth visit to the city since launching his first campaign — with his eyes on repeating his 2016 success in the Buckeye State. Trump took the bellwether state — it has voted for the presidential winner in every race dating back to 1964 — by eight percentage points and his campaign sees winning Ohio again as crucial to his reelection hopes.
But winning Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati and trends Democratic, is a long shot for Trump. It’s only one of two Ohio counties in 2016 where Clinton did better than former President Obama, who twice won the state by narrow margins.
David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, described the left-leaning Cincinnati as a sort of “little West Berlin surrounded by East Germany.”
“I would say the main consequence of a rally like this is it will help serve to harden the division between Cincinnati itself and the surrounding community,” Niven said. “This is not a rally for Cincinnati even though it’s a rally in Cincinnati. This is a rally for folks who live 45 miles outside the town.”
While the Trump attacks may be helping Trump with base voters, they could have the opposite impact with on-the-fence voters, according to some strategists.
If the president continues the divisive attacks, he could be wading into “really risky” political territory, said Republican consultant Alex Conant.
It’s an issue the president might be able to overcome with independent voters and moderate Republicans if the Democratic nominee is a candidate from the party’s more liberal wing with policy positions that center-right voters find more worrisome than Trump’s rhetoric or behavior, Conant added.
But Trump may find himself in deeper trouble if the nominee turns out to be a moderate Democrat such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Conant said. A poll published last week by Quinnipiac University showed Biden leading Trump 50% to 42% in Ohio, while four other top-tier Democratic White House hopefuls tied or trailed Trump by single percentage point in the state.
“(Trump) thinks that having these fights are good for him because these are the opponents he wants to have and his base loves to see him fight,” said Conant, who served as a spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “A lot of soft Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump because they couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton (in 2016). There’s no guarantee that they’ll vote for Trump in 2020 if they think the Democratic alternative is acceptable.“
Ray Boston, 74, a longtime Cincinnati resident who attended the organizing meeting at the church, said it’s baffling that anyone can look at Trump’s rhetoric and not conclude he’s racist.
Boston added that if Trump really was concerned about the ills of urban communities, he’d use the power of his office to do something substantive.
“To criticize black politicians for the problems in their communities, when as the president of the United States, you actually have the power to do something to change things yet do nothing...” Boston said. “What he's saying is nonsense.”
Contributing: Max Londberg.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump rally: Cincinnati residents react to President's 'racist' words