Despite being interrupted a reported 51 times by her opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton dominated in the first presidential debate, reports the New York Times, Washington Post, and other media outlets. GOP candidate Donald Trump, however, appears to have claimed last night as a victory for himself, tweeting, "Wow, did great in the debate polls (except for @CNN – which I don't watch). Thank you!"
Among the back and forth, which one writer deemed a "90-minute long slugfest," was a brief mention of how Trump began his career in the 70s. During a discussion on racial healing and Trump's longtime questioning of President Obama's citizenship, Clinton brought up Trump's "long record of engaging in racist behavior."
"But remember, Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination," she said. "Because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans. And he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy."
According to the Washington Post, the lawsuit Clinton referenced "marked the first time Trump became a regular presence on newspaper front pages." The complaint, filed by the Department of Justice, filed suit against Trump Management Inc. for racial discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. According to court documents, the company refused to rent to people of color in New York by misrepresenting the availability of apartment units. When company representatives did negotiate with minorities, the suit alleged, they offered them different terms and conditions and used a code ("C" for "colored") to indicate if the applicant was African-American.
The legal battle stemmed from the vastly different experiences of black and white housing activists working undercover on a government-sanctioned investigation, the Post reports. For example, when a black woman attempted to rent a Brooklyn apartment in a building owned by Trump's real estate company, she was allegedly told nothing was available. When a second tester, a white woman, met the same apartment manager a short time late, she was allegedly offered a choice between two units.
Phyllis Spiro, another housing activist at the time, told the Post recently that she and others found "a constant pattern and practice of discrimination" as they investigated Trump complexes.
In true Trump fashion, he denied the allegations, stating his apartments had "the same ratio of minority tenants as exists in the community as a whole," and then countersued for defamation, seeking $100 million. His attorney, Roy Cohn, went after the DOJ attorney on the case, calling her investigation "Gestapo-like" and tried to get her held in contempt.
Eventually, Trump settled the lawsuit, albeit without an admission of guilt. According to the New York Times, he was ordered to promise not to discriminate against minorities and provide a weekly list of vacancies to the New York Urban League for two years.
Andra Gillespie is an associate professor of political science at Emory University, specializing in political mobilization and race. She says Clinton tried to make a "lawyerly case" in last night's debates that Trump is racist and has a history of being so. "To charge someone with racism is very loaded, and it's actually fraught with a lot of risks," she tells Broadly. "People take very seriously the charge that someone is racist and most people take offense to it."
By pointing to the Trump organization's trouble with the Justice Department decades ago, Gillespie says, Clinton presents evidence of racism that's not based on just one set of circumstances or even a series of circumstances from one period of his life. "Part of it is to not focus on the birther comment or the comment about Mexicans at his campaign announcement. This isn't an isolated incident," she explains. "What [the Clinton campaign is] arguing is that words matter because words actually reveal the heart of a person. He said this stuff and it's not just idle chatter. It's backed up by behavior."
For voters who believe there isn't much difference between the two candidates, Clinton worked hard during the debates to distance herself from Trump, Gillespie says. When the discussion of criminal justice reform, policing reform, and racial profiling came up, voters saw a "huge contrast" between the two, she says. "One talked about systemic racism, and the other talked about why 'stop and frisk,' which some consider systemically racist, was a good idea."
While discussing the DOJ lawsuit during the debate, Trump stressed the "no admission of guilt" point twice. He also admitted he had "nothing" to say to Americans about racial healing, but he did make sure to point out that he's "developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African-American community."