Voters of color react to Trump’s comments on white supremacy

When Derrick Dillard tuned in to watch the presidential debate and heard President Trump deflect when asked to condemn far-right white supremacists, he was not shocked.

Listening to Trump tell the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, to “stand by,” the 49-year-old writer of motivational books felt Trump had simply confirmed the stakes of the November election.

“That is what white supremacists do to maintain power,” Dillard said Wednesday as he walked through Atlanta’s historically Black West End neighborhood, past a Caribbean restaurant, a braid store and a stall hawking Black Lives Matter T-shirts. “As African Americans, this is nothing new to us. This is a modern-day expression of what has been happening for 400 years.”

Derrick Dillard of Atlanta says the country is at a turning point: “Either we’re going to regress, or we’re going to say ‘No more.’”

(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

Asked whether he would condemn violent white supremacist groups and ask them to “stand down,” Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” and claimed left-wing groups were responsible for much of the violence this summer in cities in Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“The question is, are we going to choose white supremacy or are we going to choose equality?” added Dillard, who grew up in West Oakland and has lived in Atlanta for decades. “As Americans, we’ve seen enough to decide what direction we’re going to go in. Either we’re going to regress, or we’re going to say, ‘No more.’”

Trump’s inflammatory performance on Tuesday and his reluctance to distance himself from right-wing extremists caused shock waves across the nation and social media, provoking a flurry of tweets from NBA stars and rappers, civil right activists and political pundits, as well as actors and actresses. But the reaction was more mixed — and muted — among minority voters in closely contested battleground states such as Georgia and North Carolina.

Later in the debate, when asked whether he would urge his supporters to stay calm during the election and not engage in civil unrest, Trump said: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen.”

On the streets of southwestern Atlanta, blocks away from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s alma mater, Morehouse College, some Black voters shrugged, saying that Trump’s stance on white supremacists and far-right groups was part of a pattern, or that they were more concerned about the economy and the coronavirus. Others worried that Trump’s words would stoke more violence and lead to voter intimidation.

After stepping out of a hair salon on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Akesha Smith, 39, a Black computer technician who was laid off in March, said she didn’t care too much about what Trump said about Proud Boys or white supremacists.

She was more concerned to hear what candidates had to say on the coronavirus as she struggled on unemployment benefits to care for her disabled mother and monitor her 14-year-old son, who is studying at home. Her son’s great-aunt recently died of COVID-19.

Smith voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but is not sure she will vote for the 2020 Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. She says she tries not to concern herself with things that she can’t control.

“I haven’t faced that problem at my doorstep,” she said of the Proud Boys. “Even though Trump said what he said, and even though everybody feels a certain way, I can only be more focused on what actually matters.”

Some Black voters in Atlanta, though, interpreted the president’s words as a call to arms and a signal that he will not surrender power easily in November.

“It’s scary,” said Michael Young, 47, as he sprawled out in a Kia minivan in the junkyard where he cleans cars, discussing Trump’s performance with a huddle of men. “If he loses, he’s going out the door with a bang.”

“Basically, he’s going to start a race war,” agreed Mike Brown, 47, the yard’s groundskeeper, who wore a Black Lives Matter mask covering his chin as he paced back and forth. “People are gonna be coming out here, riding by, and start shooting at us. If he keeps on going on the way he’s going, that’s what he’s gonna do. He’s encouraging them.”

Craig McDaniel, 50, the manager of a nearby car lot, nodded.

Craig McDaniel standing next to a car in Atlanta.

Craig McDaniel, manager of an Atlanta car lot, said the presidential debate left him “terrified” that violence would escalate.

(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m terrified,” he said.

Such fears are particularly strong in rural areas of the South, where there was already concern about voter intimidation.

In North Carolina, Maria Pulido, a 27-year-old data manager who lives in the small town of Siler City, where she grew up after her family immigrated from Mexico, said that after hearing the debate, she felt like Trump had added fuel to the fire.

His urging for supporters to go to the polls, she said, is “his way of saying, ‘Be out there and try to get that vote or deter people from voting.’”

Janet Pulido, Maria Pulido and Alirio Estevez, from left, talk outside in Siler City, N.C.

Maria Pulido, center, out with sister Janet Pulido and Alirio Estevez to register voters in Siler City, N.C., believes Trump was encouraging backers on Tuesday to be at the polls to “deter people from voting.”

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

At times, Pulido, who calls herself “Latina Southern,” said it felt uncomfortable for her family to cast their votes — even though their town of 8,200 is 42% Latino. One year, when her cousin showed up to vote, he was told, falsely, that it was not his polling place.

“The times that I’ve voted, it definitely feels like they’re staring at you — they’re looking at you like kind of wanting to say, ‘Get out. You don’t belong here,’” she said. “Mainly it is white people who are out there to vote or who work those places.”

Her family had talked about going to the polls to support other Latino voters.

“Seeing a Hispanic face kind of makes you feel like somebody that looks like me is here, so it’s not as intimidating,” Pulido said. “We want to make sure that people aren’t being told go away and know they can walk past those looks of intimidation and make it inside.”

Not all Latino voters, though, were concerned.

After watching Trump and Biden spar, Mauricio Vides, 22, who lives in Mebane, a small town 45 miles northwest of Raleigh, said he thought Trump had won the debate.

Vides, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador when he was 10 and is employed as a drainage worker on weekdays and server at a Mexican restaurant on weekends, disputed the idea that Trump did not call out white supremacists.

“As Chris Wallace was asking him, he repeatedly said, ‘Sure, yes, I’ll do it.’ But he was being interrupted.”

“He even called out the Proud Boys and told them to stand back,” he added. “That was the main thing that stood out to me from the debate.”

Dismissing the idea of voter intimidation, Vides said that everyone needed to vote in person.

“I think in reality what Trump is trying to tell us is, tell people to wake up,” he said. “The results of the election can be in jeopardy by the Democrat Party. President Trump is just trying to get our votes to count.”

At the White House on Wednesday morning, Trump sought to downplay any link to the Proud Boys, a group that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Followers — who claim they are not white supremacists, but rather “Western chauvinists” that unapologetically stand up for “Western values” — have frequently marched alongside white supremacists and Nazis and been involved in violent clashes at political gatherings.

“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” Trump said.

“Whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work,” he said, then pivoted to attacking the left.

On the nationally syndicated radio show “Keepin’ It Real with Rev. Al Sharpton,” a listener called in Wednesday to say he feared Trump’s “stand by” comment was an “activation code” to right-wing extremists.

“Is there going to be intimidation at the polls?” he asked.

“What is frightening to me is he is the president,” Sharpton said. “He is in charge of the military. He has the nuclear codes. That he would flirt with the bad boys — you can’t easily dismiss that.”

A news anchor and reporter on Telemundo’s midday news show, meanwhile, noted that Trump’s comment to “stand by” had led to responses from the Proud Boys community, including one of its leaders saying that they would wait on the president’s order.

Qué barbaridad,” the anchor said with a sigh. “What an outrage!”

Some voters of color who did not tune into the debate heard only snippets from social media.

“I heard Joe Biden told Donald Trump to shut up,” said Jay Williams, 35, a Black construction worker, as he walked up to Wadada, a Black-owned market and juice store, to pick up lunch. “Maybe he needs to shut up.”

Williams was not particularly bothered that Trump had refused to condemn white supremacists.

“Donald Trump will stand up for what he believes in,” he said. “Whether we agree with it or not, he fully believes in it. I would say, in a way, you have to admit it’s admirable that he stands firm. But at the same time, you know, it is what it is.”

He shrugged.

“Most of the U.S. presidents were white supremacists,” he said. “Trump’s just more honest.”

Williams said he was not against Trump and liked some Republican principles such as religious freedom, the right to bear arms and traditional marriage.

Ultimately, he said, it didn’t matter whom he voted for.

“I think they’re all buddy-buddy,” he said of the presidential candidates. “At the end of the day, they high-five each other, have lunch and say, ‘Hey, they’re fooled again.’”

Shalafonte Walls carries beverages outside a store in Atlanta.

Shalafonte Walls isn’t overly concerned that President Trump may have emboldened right-wing extremists, because it’s out of her control. “It is what it is,” she said.

(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

Shalafonte Walls, a 22-year-old entrepreneur originally from Chicago, also didn’t watch the debate. But even before it was over, she was bombarded by video clips and memes on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

“They kept talking over each other,” she said over a banana pudding smoothie from Wadada. “Our country, it looks like a fool!”

She plans to vote for Democrats in November, not so much because of Biden but because of his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is the first Black woman on a major-party ticket. Walls was not concerned that Trump could be emboldening right-wing extremists.

“It is what it is,” she said. “I’ll let them handle what they got to handle. If I can’t control it, I’m not gonna put too much stress on it. I’ll do my part.”

In North Carolina, where eligible voters make up the fastest-growing segment of the Latino population and 42% of Latinos are registered Democrat to 14% Republican, organizers were already considering hosting “parties at the polls” to help Latinos feel welcome.

A planned protest in Henderson County against the federal 287(g) program, the contentious section of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act that allows local law enforcement to collaborate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was canceled in September after organizers received death threats.

Concerns only increased after the debate.

“What we fear the most is having people with Confederate flags or weapons intimidating Black and brown folks from voting,” said Iliana Santillán, “People Power” director with Poder NC Action. “We already know that rural areas are more at risk of encountering some racist attacks, especially at the polls.”

Jarvie reported from Atlanta and Mejia from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Melissa Gomez and Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report.