In February 2020, a number of social media and blog posts claimed that House Majority Whip James Clyburn “refused to give credit” to United States President Donald Trump for low Black unemployment numbers, because Black Americans were “fully employed during slavery”:
This is how House Majority Whip James Clyburn responded to lowest ever black unemployment:
"We were fully employed during slavery, so it all depends"
Democrats refuse to accept that this president is delivering for black America
What a shameful statement, @WhipClyburn
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) February 21, 2020
In the second post above, a February 19 2020 post on the site Chicks On The Right is linked, and it read in part:
This is how badly the left refuses to give ANY credit to Trump.
Really? Slavery was your best selling point?
On a scale of 1- EVEN… I can’t.
I JUST CAN’T EVEN.
That blog sourced all content from an article on the same day published by the right-wing blog DailyWire.com. It began:
Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) refused to give President Donald Trump any credit during an interview on [February 18 2020] for delivering record low unemployment rates for the black community, and instead argued that blacks had more jobs when they were slaves.
That article concluded with a video clip and the following exchange. In it, Cavuto claimed that Trump had “delivered the goods” for Black Americans, citing “record low” unemployment levels in particular.
Cavuto moved on from the assertion with an implication it was necessarily accurate, and asked if Clyburn believed the claim was “something that’s constructive.”
Clyburn disputed the veracity of Cavuto’s claim unemployment hit a record low under Trump, and Cavuto asked what Clyburn meant. At that point, Clyburn made a terse and sarcastic remark that Black Americans were “fully employed during slavery, so it all depends about how you measure this up”:
“Well let’s leave the words aside, alright congressman? Let’s leave the words aside. Whether you like his style or not, or tweets or not, or comments or not, [President Trump] delivered the goods for a lot of African Americans, has he not?” Cavuto asked. “With record low unemployment levels, one group after another, mostly with African Americans. You don’t think that’s something that’s constructive?”
“No, no, because it’s not true,” Clyburn falsely claimed.
“What do you mean it’s not true?” Cavuto pressed.
“I’m saying African American unemployment is not the lowest it’s ever been, unless you count slavery,” Clyburn responded. “We were fully employed during slavery, so it all depends about how you measure this up.”
Immediately thereafter, the Daily Wire article invited readers to “WATCH” a clip of the exchange in the form of a one-minute and eleven-seconds-long video on Twitter. That tweet’s clip ended with Clyburn saying “it all depends about how you measure this up”:
.@WhipClyburn dismisses the record low black unemployment rate: "I’m saying that the African-American unemployment is not the lowest it has ever been unless you count slavery. We were fully employed during slavery." pic.twitter.com/avMkpS6A9J
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) February 19, 2020
A top result on Google for Cavuto’s interview of Clyburn led to FoxNews.com, the same network on which Clyburn appeared. However, that article appeared to have been both published and deleted on February 19 2020, and the link led to a “page not found” error (although various affiliates continued to carry links to the story.) We archived the 404 page here.
An archived version of the Fox News article saved an hour after it was published was headlined “Top House Democrat slams Trump economy: ‘We were fully employed during slavery.'” Three versions of the page were archived on February 19 2020.
Like Daily Wire, Fox News concluded its reporting on the exchange with the “during slavery” comment. In the excerpt below, Cavuto and Clyburn discussed the latter’s willingness to support former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presidential candidacy should he win the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Cavuto referred, in Fox News’ description, “to a series of controversial comments made in recent years by Bloomberg about ethnic minorities that have resurfaced during the campaign,” and asked if those comments “bother” Clyburn. The article concluded first with Clyburn answering that question and then indicating that Trump’s comments on race and ethnicity bothered him more than Bloomberg’s.
At that point, the exchange over a purported record low for unemployment occurred. It was unclear why Fox News deleted the article entirely:
“Well, not as much as what Trump has said about African-Americans,” Clyburn responded. “Any time … that I go to the polls, I’m considering positives and negatives on all candidates. And I try to go with the one whose positives outweigh the negatives.”
Cavuto then brought up the president’s economic record, saying that he had “delivered the goods for a lot of African-Americans … with record-low unemployment levels,” prompting Clyburn to interject, “Come on, Neil” before claiming that the numbers were “not true.”
“I’m saying that the African-American unemployment is not the lowest it’s ever been unless you count slavery,” Clyburn said, later crediting Democrats and former President Obama for the economic numbers. “We were fully employed during slavery. So it all depends how you measure this up.”
Clyburn said he disagreed that African-American voters were content with how things were under Trump, “Because I go to church with African-Americans. I live with African-Americans. I’m the father of African-Americans.”
The congressman predicted that Trump would not match the support he had from African-American voters in 2016, when eight percent of black voters backed the president.
Videos and transcribed remarks attributed to Clyburn and Cavuto typically terminated with the “slavery” remark, leading viewers and readings to conclude Clyburn’s overarching point was that Black unemployment was “not the lowest … unless you count slavery,” and Black people were “fully employed” as slaves. Although a brief half-sentence in Fox News’ deleted article indicated otherwise, that coverage was not available to anyone researching the accuracy of the claim.
Moreover, an undeleted clip available via FoxNews.com also concluded with the “slavery” statement from Clyburn. YouTube was largely devoid of complete clips, and virtually all coverage we located featured the incomplete exchange.
One outlier was the conservative website Daily Caller, which included a slightly different portion of the segment in a February 19 2020 tweet. At the 0:32 second mark Clyburn made the “slavery” remark, but the video continued, showing the context of the conversation between Cavuto and Clyburn:
Rep. James Clyburn dismisses the record low unemployment rate for African-Americans under President Trump by saying it "is not the lowest it has ever been unless you count slavery. We were fully employed during slavery so it all depends on how you measure this up." pic.twitter.com/v7WfEn0vAA
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) February 19, 2020
Finally, we located an actual transcript of the entire conversation between Clyburn and Cavuto on FoxNews.com, under a transcript headlined, “Lung biopsy of deceased coronavirus patient shows SARS-like damage.” Anyone looking for a transcript might not think to scroll down far enough to see the transcribed remarks.
That transcript began with Cavuto’s questions about Clyburn’s feelings on Bloomberg’s candidacy:
CAVUTO: So, let me ask you, Congressman. I don’t know how it’s going to go and who the eventual nominee will be. But, as you have been seeing with Michael Bloomberg, he’s been jumping in the polls, on the heels of his very expensive, pricey ad buys, now likely to total $400 million by the end of next month, if you include $125 million slated for Super Tuesday ads. If he were the nominee, could you, would you back him?
CLYBURN: Oh, I’m going to back whoever our nominee is, absolutely, very enthusiastically.
CAVUTO: Even with the things he has said about African-Americans, or does that bother you?
CLYBURN: Well, not as much as what Trump has said about African-Americans. Any time that I go to the polls, I’m considering positives and negatives on all candidates. And I try to go with the one whose positives outweigh the negatives. In my mind, Donald Trump…
Cavuto interrupted, segueing to black unemployment under Trump:
CAVUTO: Well, let’s leave the words aside, then, right, Congressman. Let’s leave the words decide.Whether you like his style or not, or tweets or not, or comments or not, he’s delivered the goods for a lot of African-Americans, has he not, with record low unemployment levels for one group after another…
CLYBURN: Come on.
CAVUTO: … mostly with African-Americans.
CLYBURN: Come on, Neil.
CAVUTO: You don’t think that’s something that’s constructive?
CLYBURN: No. No, because it’s not true.
CAVUTO: What do you mean it’s not true?
CLYBURN: I’m 78 years…
CAVUTO: Go ahead.
CLYBURN: I’m saying that the African-American unemployment is not the lowest it has ever been, unless you count slavery. We were fully employed during slavery. So, it all depends on how you measure this up. So, it is not the lowest it’s ever been.
Nearly all shared clips and transcriptions ended there, which appeared to be a deliberate effort to lead readers and viewers to believe that Clyburn had argued that Trump ought to be denied credit for purportedly low unemployment numbers for Black Americans during his administration. But the conversation went on from there, beginning with crosstalk between Cavuto and Clyburn.
Incidentally, looking closely at the exchange, it appeared Cavuto was bargaining — or even haggling — with Clyburn, ending each exchange with a modified question about Trump’s assumed economic accomplishments.
Cavuto claimed that Black employment was at its lowest rate in 52 years, and Clyburn maintained that Trump claimed credit for a trend started during President Barack Obama’s administration. Cavuto redirected his point, and asserted that Black unemployment had, to that point, been “trending down under Democrat and Republican administrations,” including President Obama’s two terms.
Cavuto asked Clyburn to “hear him out” and once again asked Clyburn if he gave Trump “any credit” for that for the downward trend:
CAVUTO: Well, it’s at 52 — it’s at 52-year…
CLYBURN: In the Obama…
CAVUTO: No, I’m sorry, sir. It’s at 52-year lows. It has been trending down under Democrat and Republican administrations. So…
CAVUTO: So, happens to be the lowest — no, no, hear me out. It’s the lowest in this cycle with this president. Do you give him any credit for that?
To the question of whether he credited Trump for better unemployment numbers, Clyburn explained:
CLYBURN: I give [Trump] credit for continuing what we laid the foundation for back in 2009. Remember, I was there. I was a part of the leadership. I was around that table every day. I’m the one that put into the 10-20-30 funding formula for rural communities. That was my proposal. It’s now been spread by the Republicans. And I give Speaker Ryan credit for moving it from four accounts up to 17 accounts. That is what we did back in 2009. And Trump is building on that.
Cavuto pressed the point, then asking whether there was “nothing” that the Trump administration did to improve the numbers in question. Cavuto himself said that the Obama administration had created “a steadily improving employment picture [for] African- Americans, [and] all groups,” which he redirected to claim that Trump had then “accelerated” those gains, yet again asking Clyburn if he agreed:
CAVUTO: So, there’s nothing this president has done — there’s nothing this president has done to help improve that process? Because it is a pace that has improved under this president. You’re quite right to say a steadily improving employment picture [for] African- Americans, all groups under Barack Obama. Many economists of all political stripes, sir, say the president took that and accelerated it. You disagree?
CLYBURN: He continued it. I don’t think it’s been accelerated at all. If you look at where we were in 2009, and where we were when Trump became president, the movement from 2009 to that point was much greater than the movement has been from the time he took over until now. He continued it. He did not accelerate it.
Cavuto did not dispute Clyburn’s claims, instead suggesting that the purported gains made during Barack Obama’s presidency were attributable in part to previous recession and an economic downturn. Cavuto agreed that Clyburn accurately characterized that economic growth, in turn asking if it meant anything that Trump inherited economic growth and “made them even better” in a “startling and unusual” fashion:
CAVUTO: But, obviously, we were coming from a financial meltdown — we were coming from a financial meltdown at that time. And, obviously, the marked improvement is noteworthy. But it — doesn’t that actually foster the argument, sir, that, under this president, who took good times, he’s made them even better, which is a little startling and unusual, right?
CLYBURN: Well — well, it’s not startling to me. If you look at the tax cuts, I mean, record tax cuts…
CLYBURN: And we are having an economy that’s built on tax cuts, not job creation. Job creation, to me, means not having to do two and three menial jobs in order to make a living.
Cavuto tacitly acknowledged Clyburn’s dissatisfaction with job growth, calling improvement in employment statistics “a tough sell in a year like [2020.]” He then returned to the subject of giving credit to President Trump, from a position of musing about the thoughts of Americans on a whole before once again trying to get Clyburn to agree that Black Americans are “happy” with the way the Trump administration is progressing. And once again, Clyburn refused:
CAVUTO: Well, [an economy stimulated by new jobs versus tax cuts] is going to be a tough sell in a year like this right, sir? I mean, I just wonder. People are going to step back. You have heard about the 90 percent of Americans who are feeling pretty good about where things are. Whether they credit the president for that is anyone’s guess. But they’re happy with the way things are going, including African- Americans. You don’t agree with that?
CLYBURN: No, I don’t.
Finally, Cavuto says “okay,” leading Clyburn to elaborate on the basis of his repeated assertion that overall, Black Americans are dissatisfied with the economy under Trump’s administration in 2020:
CLYBURN: … because I go to church with African-Americans. I live with African-Americans. I’m the father of African-Americans. I know…
CAVUTO: You don’t think more of them will vote, more African-Americans will vote for the president than he’s generally given credit?
CLYBURN: Absolutely not. That 13 percent that he got of male voters before, 8 percent of African- Americans before, he will never get to that point this year, absolutely not.
CAVUTO: All right, we shall see.
CLYBURN: Yes, we will.
Cavuto then concludes the interview, perhaps sarcastically saying he’d count Clyburn (who had repeatedly said that he would support the Democratic nominee) as a “maybe, then, on the president,” presumably in terms of willingness to vote for him in 2020:
CAVUTO: All right, I put you as a maybe, then, on the president. All right, I tell you, Congressman, always enjoy having you. Thank you very much for taking the time.
CLYBURN: Thank you, sir.
CAVUTO: All right, jump ball on that and how you feel about that.
Although Fox News did not make it easy to find a transcript and only made the misleading abbreviated clip available on its website, the characterization was deeply faulty and misleading. Clyburn repeatedly and at length cited his personal reasons for disagreeing with Cavuto’s fixation on giving Trump “credit” for low Black unemployment rates, points with which Cavuto consistently appeared to agree and accept. Cavuto made several different attempts to elicit “credit” from Clyburn for the economy under Trump, each time being met with a different and detailed reason Clyburn disagreed with him. None of the actual sincere points made by Clyburn involved slavery, but all coverage of the segment focused solely on that quip and wholly mischaracterized his remarks in their entirety.
Ultimately, social media users, blogs, and even Fox News (the airing network) attempted to characterize the above exchange as Clyburn claiming United States President Donald Trump’s effect on Black unemployment was poor when contrasted with slavery, a time during which Black Americans were “fully unemployed.” It was unclear why Fox News deleted the written article from FoxNews.com, leaving only a misleading video available for anyone interested in the content of Clyburn’s appearance.