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How Trump speaks to black Americans says a lot about his vision for this country

Updated 10:07 PM ET, Tue September 10, 2019

Washington (CNN) - When it comes to people of color, President Donald Trump has two speaking voices: One's characterized by at-times brazen racism, and the other by infantilizing politesse.

These two voices are calibrated according to who's listening, but, together, they shine a light on the distinct sort of racial dog-whistling that's a crucial part of his politicking.

Regarding the former, think back to Trump's remarks about former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, known for protesting police brutality by refusing to stand during the national anthem: "Maybe he should find a country that works better for him."

Or, for a similar example, recall how Trump told the progressive congressional "squad" -- made up of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, all women of color -- to "go back" to "the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." (Which isn't too different from his reference to places such as Haiti as "sh**hole countries.")

As for Trump's second speaking voice, it was on display on Tuesday, when he delivered an address at the 2019 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference, in downtown Washington.

"You've made all of America very proud of you and the job you've done," he told the attendees via what seemed like a verbal pat on the head, before he rattled off a list of things his administration has ostensibly done to support HBCUs -- to mixed results.

While seemingly unrelated, you could argue that these voices are two sides of the same coin -- both, in their own way, are in service of Trump's distinctly white vision of America.

"If Donald Trump has a theory of anything, it is a theory of American citizenship," Jamelle Bouie wrote in the aftermath of Trump's outburst against the four-woman squad. "It's simple. If you are white, then regardless of origin, you have a legitimate claim to American citizenship and everything that comes with it. If you are not, then you don't."

The President's first voice, in short, is straightforward: It telegraphs whiteness as Americanness -- and it's how he talks when his main audience, stated or not, is of the "send her back" variety.

Trump's other speaking voice, by contrast, is a bit trickier -- definitely subtler -- because even when he's talking to a nonwhite crowd, there's a layer of meaning for white ears.

Go back to Tuesday's conference. During his remarks, Trump accomplished two things: For black listeners, he poured pious praise on the "cherished" role HBCUs have long played in American life (without meaningfully mentioning the overall dire state of HBCUs).

For his mainly white supporters, he came off as ... not blatantly racist, got the photo op, and maybe even secured some degree of cover from the virulent racism that's permeated the rest of his presidency. (No little thing, given that this week Trump is slated to visit Baltimore -- a majority-black city he called a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" just a few months ago.)

Trump's standing with black voters suggests how well his approach is going over: A CNN/SSRS poll released Tuesday showed the President's job approval rating among African-Americans is at 9%.

"The America First agenda is about the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite all Americans," Trump said Tuesday.

But in the President's configuration, who's really "American"? It depends on who's listening.


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