NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s vehement questioning regarding President Obama’s place of birth has provoked charges of racism, with a number of public figures from Whoopi Goldberg to Jesse Jackson accusing the real estate magnate of employing crude and unfair stereotypes. The chorus has grown so intense that Trump this week felt compelled to declare otherwise, telling TMZ.com: “I am the last person that such a thing should be said about.”
But for Trump, allegations of racism amount to recurring themes in his larger-than-life career. Two weeks ago, when he was asked during a radio interview about whether or not he is supported by African-Americans, he sparked another firestorm when he blurted: “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.” Trump’s comments were “highly offensive,” Walter Fields, former head of NAACP New Jersey, told Capital New York.
Trump styles himself a modern-day beacon of racial sensitivity, often discussing the importance of the civil-rights movement. In his 2000 political manifesto, “The America That We Deserve,” Trump outlined his dream of an America unencumbered by “racism, discrimination against women, or discrimination against people based on sexual orientation.” He once donated office space to Jackson’s civil rights group, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, he likes to pal around with African-American celebrities such as P. Diddy and Lenny Kravitz and he once hosted an NAACP convention party.
But Trump has been called out several times for racial insensitivity by former co-workers and civil rights activists. In 1991, Trump was accused of making racial slurs against black people in a book written by John R. O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, called “Trumped!” O’Donnell wrote that Trump once said, in reference to a black accountant at Trump Plaza, “laziness is a trait in blacks.” He also told O’Donnell: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
Trump called O’Donnell a disgruntled employee but he didn’t deny allegations made in the book during an interview with Playboy magazine in 1999:
“Nobody has had worse things written about them than me,” Trump says. “And here I am. The stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true. The guy’s a fucking loser. A fucking loser. I brought the guy in to work for me; it turns out he didn’t know that much about what he was doing. I think I met the guy two or three times total. And this guy goes off and writes a book about me, like he knows me!”
Trump’s office has not returned several requests for comment.
After the rape of a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989, Trump aroused controversy in New York’s black community when he took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for the African-American teenage suspects — who were all later exonerated. One of the defendant’s lawyers, Colin Moore, compared Trump’s stance to the racist attitudes expressed in the 1930s during the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” case. Trump tried to mend relations by visiting a black woman who had been raped and thrown off the roof of a building in the hospital, promising to pay her medical expenses, according to several news reports.
Later that year, Trump caught flack for his comments attacking affirmative action on NBC’s two-hour special “The Race,” telling host Bryant Gumbel: “If I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really do believe they have the actual advantage today.” That remark was derided by Orlando Sentinel columnist David D. Porter, who opined: “Too bad Trump can’t get his wish. Then he’d see that being educated, black and over 21 isn’t the key to the Trump Tower. You see there’s still that little ugly problem of racism.”
Yet the most damaging episode in the saga of Trump’s fractured relationship with the black community came in 1973, when his family’s real-estate company, Trump Management Corporation, was sued by the Justice Department for alleged racial discrimination. At the time, Trump was the company’s president. Just last month, at Trump’s Comedy Central roast, Snoop Dogg referenced the case by joking about Trump’s potential 2012 run for the White House: “Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a black family out of their home.”
The case alleged that the Trump Management Corporation had discriminated against blacks who wished to rent apartments in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. The government charged the corporation with quoting different rental terms and conditions to blacks and whites and lying to blacks that apartments were not available, according to reports of the lawsuit.
Trump responded in characteristic fashion — holding a press conference to call the charges “absolutely ridiculous.” He told the New York Times: “We never have discriminated and we never would. There have been a number of local actions against us and we’ve won them all. We were charged with discrimination and we proved in court that we did not discriminate.”
He later took the uncommon step of suing the Justice Department for defamation, seeking $100 million in damages. His lawyer was Roy Cohn, the infamous former Joseph McCarthy aide, who was known for his hard-ball tactics.
Cohn called up the federal official in charge of the case — J. Stanley Pottinger, the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights division — to demand that the lawyer handling the lawsuit be fired. Pottinger told The Huffington Post that his reaction at the time was “I don’t think so. That’s up to me and that’s not going to happen. I called [lawyer] Donna [Goldstein] into my office and said, ‘Keep up the good work.’” The suit, which Pottinger called a “media gimmick done for local consumption,” was dismissed and the judge criticized Cohn for “wasting time and paper from what I consider to be the real issues” – discriminating against blacks in apartment rentals.
Two years later, Trump Management settled the case, promising not to discriminate against blacks, Puerto Ricans and other minorities. As part of the agreement, Trump was required to send its list of vacancies in its 15,000 apartments to a civil-rights group, giving them first priority in providing applicants for certain apartments, according to a contemperaneous New York Times account. Trump, who emphasized that the agreement was not an admission of guilt, later crowed that he was satisfied because it did not require them to “accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant.”
But the company didn’t sufficiently fulfill its promise, because three years later, the Justice Department charged Trump Management with continuing to discriminate against blacks through such tactics as telling them that apartments were not available. As part of its demands, the government asked that victims of discrimination be compensated and that Trump Management continue to report to the Justice Department on its compliance. Cohn lashed out, according to the New York Times, claiming that the court motion was “nothing more than a rehash of complaints by a couple of planted malcontents.”
But the problem persisted, prompting New York City’s human rights commission to regularly dispatch investigators to search for examples of discriminatory rental practices in Trump-owned buildings. Trump was not amused, telling the New York Times that the investigation was a “form of horrible harassment.”