Could Trump’s conviction help him with Black voters?

Donald Trump thinks the justice system is treating him unfairly, and millions of Americans agree. Trump also thinks his recent felony conviction might help him with Black voters in November. And given Blacks’ understandable mistrust of the justice system, he might be right.

New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, elevated what’s normally a minor offense — falsifying business expenses — into to a felony crime, stretched the legal interpretations of the law and statute of limitations, and multiplied the charges (34 of them) to increase the penalties. Bragg got the conviction, with Trump’s sentencing coming on July 11.

Regardless of whether Trump is guilty of wrongdoing, it’s the widespread perception that the Justice Department targeted him for who he is, rather than what he did, that could resonate with Black voters — because many of them feel the justice system also targets them.

For example, Ella Wiley, senior communications associate with the Legal Defense Fund, has written, “It cannot be overlooked how — in addition to vast racial disparities in policing, arrests, and detention — every stage of the criminal justice process following the filing of charges also contributes to the mass incarceration of Black people in this country.”

These actions have had a long-running impact on how Blacks perceive the justice system. In 2019 the Pew Research Center released a poll comparing how Blacks and whites differ in their views. According to the poll, “around nine-in-ten black adults (87%) said blacks are generally treated less fairly by the criminal justice system than whites.”

And there’s evidence to support that belief. A 2022 paper published by the University of Michigan Law School titled “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” claims, “Black people are 13.6% of the American population but 53% of the 3,200 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. Judging from exonerations, innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes.”

Like Trump, many Blacks think the justice system targets them by making up or expanding charges to amplify a crime to get a bigger penalty, with the goal of getting a win for a politically ambitious prosecutor. Blacks don’t have to necessarily like Trump or his policies to feel some sympathy for his battle with the justice system.

As it turns out, Trump’s support among Blacks, especially Black men, was trending up even before his conviction. In the Pew Research Center’s most recent poll, 18 percent of Black voters — and 20 percent of Black men — would vote for (or are leaning toward) Trump if the election were held today. And that poll was released on May 20, before Trump’s conviction.

Yes, the large majority of Blacks still support President Biden. But Trump doesn’t have to win the majority of Black votes to win the election. If Trump took somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, especially in the seven swing states, he would likely clinch the White House.

Democrats are aware of the potential and are pushing back. For example, Myra Wiley, a New York civil rights attorney, told CBS, “Donald Trump’s conviction is going to be a problem for him with many Black people because, guess what, many Black people do not like people who violate our criminal laws.” No, they don’t. But it’s also true that Blacks are acutely aware of how the justice system can be overly aggressive in concocting criminal charges and pushing for a conviction.

Finally, Trump has an uncanny ability, given his billionaire and real-estate mogul status, to connect with many working-class and moderate-income voters, and with those who are fed up with elitist and establishment politicians. He even attracts evangelical voters, who would normally not embrace someone with his morally-challenged past and personal demeanor.

So, while a felony conviction would normally reduce if not eliminate a candidate’s chances of winning an election, nothing about Trump or his campaign is normal. He’s using the conviction to attract dollars and the sympathy vote. And it’s plausible that many Black voters, who have also felt targeted by the justice system, will respond positively.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on X@MerrillMatthews.

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