The Rev. Corletta Vaughn, an evangelical pastor in Detroit, had no idea that a meeting she was considering attending with Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump Monday would involve a public press conference afterward. She said she also had no idea that the Trump campaign intended on using her and as many as 99 other black evangelical pastors from across the country as props to show he had African-American support. The notion infuriated her.
“I kind of put my statement out there from the beginning that I felt that Mr. Trump represents everything that is wrong with America,” said Vaughn Monday. “What America has become in terms of being racially divided, having gender division. … I think that Mr. Trump has been very bigoted and very condescending to the African-American community."
After nearly six months as a divisive candidate willing to repeatedly offend minority populations, including Muslims and Hispanics, Trump released an advisory last week that suggested he could win over black voters. The release said 100 African-American evangelical pastors and religious leaders would endorse the billionaire at an event in New York City Monday. But over the next several days, many of the pastors said to be attending the event -- including Vaughn -- took to social media to make it clear they had no intention of endorsing him. The campaign quietly canceled press availability to the Manhattan event Sunday.
“I think that Mr. Trump is not even aware, not even relevant, to the African-American community,” Vaughn said. “I certainly can’t imagine that he has the poor black men or the 1.5 million black men who are in prison for misdemeanors. I have not seen him reach them yet.”
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Vaughn’s statements. Trump's failed attempt to reach out to black leaders came after his supporters attacked a Black Lives Matter protester on Nov. 21 in Birmingham, Alabama, kicking and punching him while he was on the floor. Trump later said his fans were in the right and that the black man “should have been roughed up.” Trump now blames the Black Lives Matter movement for pressuring the pastors not to attend his event Monday.
Vaughn said she was approached weeks ago by a pastor she knows who asked if she wanted to attend a private meeting with Trump, and was originally confused by the invitation. She wasn’t sure that issues she felt strongly about – wage disparities between white America and black America, the higher incarceration rates black Americans face compared with other ethnic groups – were things Trump cared much about. But she began considering attending so that she could discuss those issues in person.
“I said, 'well, I would possibly be interested, but I need to hear more. I do not want in any way to be exploited,'” she recalled. “This dialogue went on for days. I spoke to my publicist and we continued to have inquiry.”
Vaughn is not alone in her experience. Brooklyn megachurch pastor Hezekiah Walker, after being called an "Uncle Tom" by his congregation for agreeing to talk to Trump, wrote in an Instagram post that he only planned on explaining to the candidate the "injustice and racism that still plagued our communities." Another 100 black religious leaders wrote an open letter urging pastors thinking about endorsing Trump -- there were 40 who had planned on doing so, according to reports -- to reconsider before they "de-radicalize the Black prophetic political tradition," according to New York magazine.
Trump has spent a lot of time in recent months campaigning in Southern states like Alabama and South Carolina that have large black populations. He has also appealed to evangelical voters. He sits at the top of the pack in polls of South Carolina voters, leading his closest competitor there, Dr. Ben Carson, the only black presidential candidate, by more than 6 points in averages of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. He leads by nearly 10 points in averages of national polls.
For the last 50 years, Republican presidential campaigns have drawn only a small portion of the black vote. While President Barack Obama won 52 percent of the overall vote in 2012 against his Republican rival Mitt Romney, who got 48 percent, African-American voters preferred Obama, the nation's first black president, 95 percent to 5 percent during that election, according to Gallup.
Trump's unexpected rise to the top of Republican field and his staying power in the lead have proved that he is surprisingly invulnerable to accusations of racism and insensitivity to minority groups, among other offensive statements. Aside from his criticism of Black Lives Matter protesters, he has made inflammatory remarks that have been widely taken as biased against Mexicans and Muslims.
Vaughn said one of her biggest concerns about attending a meeting with Trump after it was marketed as an endorsement was that people in her position have a large influence on their congregations. She said she serves a church in Detroit with about 450 parishioners, but also a national network with 25,000 constituents.
“I’m just very concerned about those who were not totally informed of Mr. Trump’s, or the Trump campaign’s agenda,” she said. “We, as spiritual leaders, we represent a constituency of black people who look to us for leadership, and one thing that we must be is we must be full of integrity. … It is very obvious to me that this was not going to turn out as initiated, and I don’t like getting played. Don’t play me.”