Lately, Donald Trump has been focusing his presidential campaign on appealing to black voters. But four contestants who appeared on the Republican nominee’s former reality show The Apprentice had experiences with Trump that they saw as reflective of his dearth of cultural sensitivity and ignorance of black issues.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, Kevin Allen, Tara Dowdell, Kwame Jackson, and Randal Pinkett, black Americans who have previously denounced the presidential hopeful, said that Trump’s treatment of people of color on the show appeared unequal compared to his conduct toward white contestants.
When Pinkett was crowned victor of The Apprentice Season 4 in 2005, Trump asked him to share the title with the runner-up. In the end, Pinkett refused, prompting some backlash. “There were lots of people who said, ‘Well, why didn’t you share it? Why didn’t you do the magnanimous thing?’ And my response is ... ‘Why did he ask me, of all candidates, to share the title with the runner-up?’” he told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. In the 10-year history of the show, Trump never asked another winner to share the title with someone else. And though Pinkett personally asked Trump about the controversial move, he said he was never given much in the way of a direct answer: Pinkett said Trump told him he thought the move would be “good for the watercooler, for people to talk about the next day.”
“I can only interpret his behavior under one of two theories: the first, that he’s racially insensitive … or that he did it to try to discredit me and that he didn’t really want to see an African-American be the sole and only winner,” Pinkett said.
Allen, a final-four contestant on The Apprentice Season 2, was memorably required to sell chocolate bars outside subway stops in Manhattan as one of the challenges on the show. "You're an unbelievably talented guy in terms of education,” Trump said during Allen's firing. He told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview he was eliminated for being “overeducated,” while the contestant who ultimately won the show [Kelly Perdew] “had the exact same education” as him.
"While I was on the show, there were a lot of things that happened that were odd and I think would not have happened had I not been an African-American," Allen said. He noted that his "worst moment" came when the cast and producers were walking back to Trump Tower after filming late into the night. "[Trump's] security officers pulled me out of the group and said I was trying to get into Trump Towers without authorization," Allen said. "I'm the only African-American male on the show, and you would think that they would know that. I don't know why that happened, but it was one of those instances that kind of remind you that you're an African-American and some people think differently of you."
Dowdell, who starred on Season 3 of The Apprentice, said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News that producers tried to provoke her into playing the “angry black woman” stereotype. She said she didn’t experience any overtly racist interactions with Trump, but she did feel that “there was an expectation for some of the black women to be ‘sassy’ … particularly with Omarosa [Manigault] coming off as this villain in the first season,” alluding to the Season 1 contestant’s icy persona. (Trump hired Manigault in July as his director of African-American outreach.) “I think he is someone who does buy into some of these stereotypical notions … He’s someone who believes minorities are these sort of outliers,” Dowdell said, referring to the show’s shortage of black contestants and Trump’s treatment of its sole black winner. Trump did select a handful of racial and ethnic minority contestants during the seven seasons of the predominantly white show, but his empathy stopped with those appearances, Dowdell said. “It all comes back to marketing for him.”
“African-Americans tend to shoot ourselves in the foot when we say, ‘Oh, you know, Donald Trump is a racist ... I’m not supporting him,’ but then we give credence to the people like Omarosa simply because of … the pixie dust of celebrity,” Jackson, who was the runner-up on The Apprentice Season 1, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. (A representative did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for an interview with Manigualt regarding Trump’s treatment of black Apprentice contestants.)
But Trump’s eyebrow-raising conduct did not deter black audiences from tuning in for The Celebrity Apprentice, which is what The Apprentice transformed into in 2008. During the 2010-2011 run of the spinoff, several famous entertainers, including Lil Jon, NeNe Leakes, and Dionne Warwick, starred as contestants, which brought many black fans into The Apprentice fold. One episode in particular, which aired on May 4, 2011, drew a jaw-dropping 1.5 million black viewers.
Pinkett thought that Trump cast black performers on that particular fourth season of The Celebrity Apprentice — which also featured La Toya Jackson and Star Jones — not for the sake of inclusivity, but to harness the stars’ pull with audiences. “I don’t think he valued diversity on those shows; I think he valued the fact that they were celebrities,” he said, adding that he believes Trump maintains close friendships with certain prominent black figures for the same reason. “That’s why Mike Tyson is an exception to his rule. That’s why Don King is an exception to his rule. At one point, I was an exception to his rule, where he considers those individuals more ‘in his circle.’”
Jackson also asserted that if The Apprentice were on television today, it would not appeal to black viewers. “In 2011, [people] didn’t know what they do now [about Trump],” he said, citing Trump’s failure to speak directly with black organizations like the NAACP. He surmised that if anyone thought Trump would earn similar numbers to The Celebrity Apprentice’s strong Season 4 ratings with black viewers now, “I’d be like, yeah, keep dreaming.”
“When you find out this person has these types of views, and then they do you the disservice of trying to appeal to you but won’t even come speak at any of your organizations … then that’s a farce,” Jackson said.
Pinkett agreed. “The idea that you can establish some measure of credibility with three months before the presidential election by hiring surrogates and putting Omarosa in an outreach position and holding forums with everybody but people of color? … Anyone who has had any interaction with people of color would know better,” he said, adding that in the year he spent working at Trump Entertainment Resorts, he did not meet a single person of color in an executive role.
Trump’s campaign manager announced Sunday that the candidate plans to appear at events in black communities to address black voters’ interests, but the effort may be too little, too late, according to Pinkett.
“If you look at his [donations to philanthropic organizations], if you look at the lack of diversity of his organization, if you look at [his response to] the Central Park Five, if you look at his housing discrimination case, if you look at all these factors, it becomes very clear very quickly that Donald has never cared about minority communities.”
Representatives for Trump, Trump Productions, Mark Burnett (who created and produced both The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice), and NBC did not immediately reply to BuzzFeed News’ request for comments on the contestants’ aforementioned experiences.