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Trump seeks to repair image among black voters

Members of the clergy prayed over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Members of the clergy prayed over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, fighting persistent complaints that he is racially insensitive, traveled to a predominantly black church in Ohio Wednesday in an effort to connect with African-American voters — but hours later endorsed a police policy controversial with minorities.

“We’re all brothers and sisters,” the Republican nominee said at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights. “I fully understand that the African-American community has suffered from discrimination and many wrongs must be made right.”

Later Wednesday, during a town hall forum hosted by Sean Hannity of Fox News, Trump proposed a nationwide “stop-and-frisk” program similar to one launched in New York City under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That policy, in which officers stopped people on New York’s streets to search for weapons and contraband, led to charges of racial profiling against police.

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“I would do stop-and-frisk,” Trump said, in response to a question about how he would curb crime in black communities. “I think you have to.”

Trump, who is often quick to defend law enforcement, also questioned the decision of a Tulsa, Okla., police officer in the shooting of an unarmed black man last week.

“A young policeman shot this man. I don’t get it. I don’t care where you’re coming from. There was something really bad going on,” Trump said. “I don’t know if [the officer] choked. He was walking. His hands were high. He was walking to the car. He put the hands on the car. Now, maybe she choked.”

Trump staged the event at the Ohio church just days after he acknowledged that President Obama was indeed born in the United States — contrary to the conspiracy theories he helped stoke for the past five years questioning Obama’s birth origin. Trump’s leadership role in the discredited “birther’’ movement was considered by many to be a racially motivated attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the country’s first black president.

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Wednesday’s appearance also came just one day after he declared that African-American communities are in worse shape today than they have “ever, ever, ever’’ been — comments that were widely panned as historically inaccurate.

But even before Trump took the pulpit Tuesday, longtime boxing promoter Don King, in a rambling and at times incoherent introduction, let loose a racial epithet, a moment that seemed to symbolize Trump’s awkward embrace of black voters who, according to polls, are prepared to shun him in droves.

The day’s events were part of an effort by the Trump campaign in advance of the first presidential debate Monday night to burnish his image among not only black voters but also white suburban voters who might be reluctant to support a candidate tagged as a racist.

“I’ve lost count as to how many times the disgusting, liberal, mainstream media have attempted to label Mr. Donald Trump a racist, a xenophobe, and a bigot — and let’s not forget sexist, misogynist, narcissist, Islamaphobe, anti-Hispanic, anti-Semite demagogue, and countless others,” said Michael Cohen, a longtime Trump aide who helped assemble black pastors supportive of Trump, speaking in the Cleveland Heights church. “It’s disgraceful. . . . Not only is Donald Trump not a racist, he believes that all people are part of one race: The human race.”

Throughout the 2008 campaign, the issue of race was at the forefront as Barack Obama sought to become the first black president in the nation’s history. In different ways, race and ethnic identity have emerged as part of the fabric of the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Trump has made divisive rhetoric targeting Mexicans and Muslim immigrants a core part of his campaign.

David Duke, the onetime leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is running for US Senate in Louisiana, saying he was inspired by Trump’s success in the primary contest. Trump, earlier in the campaign, failed to immediately distance himself from Duke when asked in a TV interview, although he later said he misheard the question.

Democrats are seeking to rally support among minorities, particularly Latinos and blacks, to drive up turnout for their nominee, Hillary Clinton. Obama — who on Saturday will lead a dedication ceremony at the National African American Museum — has been urging black voters to get out and vote against Trump. Others, few more vociferously than Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called Trump a bigot and a “thin-skinned racist.”

Clinton dominates among African-American voters, but is having trouble generating enthusiasm and faces challenges making sure they go to the polls.

Democrats continue to highlight Trump’s own statements. On Tuesday in North Carolina the real estate mogul said, “Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before. Ever, ever, ever.”

Critics pointed out Trump apparently was forgetting slavery, or the civil rights era, when black Americans were forced to use separate water fountains, attend separate schools, and sit at the back of the bus.

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The town he was speaking in Tuesday — Kenansville, N.C. – was named after a man from a slaveholding family.

“I don’t know what Mr. Trump is talking about,” Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., said Wednesday on MSNBC. “To say that the situation for African-Americans is worse than it’s ever been is to talk about worse than slavery? Worse than the system of segregation and racial discrimination when we couldn’t take a seat at a lunch counter and be served? Worse than being denied the right to register to vote, to participate in a democratic process? To live in certain neighborhoods and communities?”

“We have seen changes,” he added. “If he failed to believe that things have changed, I invite him to come and walk in my shoes.”

Democrats have had a lock on black voters for decades, and Republicans have struggled to make inroads. John McCain received only 4 percent of black votes in 2008, while Mitt Romney received 6 percent in 2012.

Trump has been faring even worse during this campaign.

A CBS News/YouGov survey in Pennsylvania found earlier this month that only 3 percent of black voters said they would vote for him, and some 85 percent of those who don’t support him are not open to changing their minds. Out of 152 black voters surveyed in Ohio recently, only 3 said they would vote for Trump.

Clinton’s challenge is not in winning a large share of the black vote, but in making sure turnout is high.

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Obama has urged black voters to turn out in the same numbers that helped him secure the presidency, saying he would consider it a “personal insult” if they do not.

“My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot,” the president said Saturday during a dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot.”

Trump’s willingness to cling to his false claim that Obama was not born in the United States has long caused distrust of him in the black community. He has claimed credit for causing Obama to release his long-form birth certificate — something Obama did in 2011, proving his Hawaiian birth — but Trump has not explained why for five more years he continued suggesting Obama may have been born elsewhere.

Trump was also criticized in June when he pointed to a black supporter during a rally and said, “Look at my African-American over there.” Last week, a black pastor interrupted Trump’s remarks when he came to her church, saying she did not want him to be political in attacking Clinton.

Trump later made fun of her.

“She was so nervous, she was shaking,” he said on Fox News. “And I said, ‘Wow, this was kind of strange.’ ”

Trump has often pointed to several well-known black supporters, including Omarosa Manigault from his show “The Apprentice,” who now leads his African-American outreach. On Wednesday he had King, the longtime boxing promoter, introduce him.

“I told Michael Jackson, I said, if you are poor, you are a poor Negro — I would use the N-word — if you are rich, you are a rich Negro,” King said.

But then he proceeded to use an epithet.

“If you are a talented intellectual, you are an intellectual Negro. If you are a dancing and sliding and gliding nigger, I mean Negro,” he continued.

Trump smiled in the background as people in the crowd chuckled.


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.