African Americans are largely Christian and the Christian church has historically been the center of Black life. The church has been the epicenter for social and community programming, for political organizing, at times even for recreation.
Both presidential campaigns realize the influence African American clergy have over their communities. The Trump campaign has made a concerted, though many would argue disingenuous, effort to attract Black votes by meeting with pastors and attending an African American church in Detroit.
While focusing on the Black church is a tried and true method for galvanizing and energizing the Black electorate, the Trump campaign is showing their naiveté and cultural ignorance by simultaneously threatening to take away the civil liberties of Muslims. African Americans view Muslims and Islam very differently than much of the United States.
Christian Blacks still have reverence for Muslim icons like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and supported the latter in his question for respect and religious freedom. Even if they don’t agree with Islamic theology, they venerate the asceticism, dedication, and steadfastness of many Muslims both in the U.S. and abroad.
In December, Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The GOP nominee has suggested his wisdom was greater than the Constitution and has switched from talk of banning a religion to banning the territories in which Muslims live. The far right has applauded Trump’s desire for “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants. However, African Americans will see through the campaign’s plans.
Firstly, African Americans were front and center for Trump surrogate Pastor Mark Burns meltdown after being exposed on national television for fraudulent claims of being a member of a Black Greek letter organization and a college graduate. Many Black men and women who earned their way into such organizations by pledging and maintaining decent grades were truly offended. More importantly, it showed that Trump is not particularly good at vetting people.
Secondly, a significant portion of the African American and immigrant Black population is Muslim. 13% of African Americans whose parents were born in the US are Muslim, while at least 23% of Muslims in the US identify as Black, according to the Pew Research Center. One can surmise that though Blacks are sitting in the pews of a local church, they may have a brother, sister, or neighbor who identifies as Muslim.
Black Americans also have respect for the Nation of Islam. An argument can be made that the Nation doesn’t represent orthodox forms of Islam, neither positively or negatively. While it is most certainly a gateway for African Americans to orthodox Islam, they view themselves unequivocally as Muslims.
A message of Islamophobia will certainly not resonate with Blacks. Malcolm X, a Muslim human rights activist, when referring to Christian preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want. Freedom.”
Likewise, African American Christians see common values and mutual purpose with God fearing, law abiding Muslims around the world.
Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the African American studies department at the University of Maryland College Park and the current editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of hip-hop studies.