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Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey was the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) —  

A white man who helped spread the racist conspiracy that Barack Obama wasn’t really American put a black woman on display, as though at a slave auction, to defend the white man who did more than anyone else to take birtherism national against legitimate charges of racism. Then, that white man reacted with outrage and hurt when a woman of color called him out for what he had done.

Issac Bailey
Issac Bailey

Though North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said Thursday he does not support his 2012 comments about sending then-President Obama “back to Kenya,” his stunt during Wednesday’s public hearing with Michael Cohen wasn’t the most revealing moment of the ugliness and complexity of American racial politics that unfolded before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Wednesday.

The most illuminating moment came after Meadows told Lynne Patton, a HUD official, to stand like a mute prop so he could literally point to her presence to declare that President Donald Trump couldn’t be racist because a black woman like Patton likes Trump. It was when Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, a black man, felt the need to call Meadows a good friend and got a Palestinian-American woman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, to say that though she was criticizing Meadows’ behavior, she wasn’t claiming he was a racist.

The scene harkened back to what was a frequent occurrence in the antebellum South to what historians sometimes refer to as the “Magnolia” and “Sable” curtains of race relations. Though it was a time when white people utterly dehumanized black people, white people also convinced themselves that black people believed they were beloved members of the white family and appreciated the guidance of their wiser, more moral counterparts. That lie could only be sustained with the cooperation of black people, who went along with the ruse mostly to fend off white fears about slave rebellions. Patton’s role was particularly instructive, given that she willingly went along with Meadows’ disgusting act.

Literal slavery wasn’t at stake Wednesday, of course. But the exchange, in which Meadows loudly cried foul, said he had black family members and that Cummings was a good friend even after Meadows had – as Tlaib rightly pointed out – just committed an ugly, racist act in the committee room, is the latest example of the racial divide that remains in effect in the United States more than a century and a half after the Civil War.

It’s no coincidence that Meadows represents North Carolina, where I, too, have lived and where that uneasy existence has never not been in effect – it’s just changed forms. That’s why, as crazy as it might sound to rational-thinking Americans, Meadows likely genuinely felt hurt by charges of racism, even though he was caught on video multiple times during the 2012 election cycle talking about sending Obama back to Kenya and is one of the most high-profile members of a Republican Party that with “almost surgical precision” (in the words of the appellate judges who struck them down as unconstitutional) crafted laws to make it harder for black people to vote.

In Meadows’ thinking, you can do all that and still not have a “racial bone” in your body – as long as you have a black person or three to trot out when necessary to vouch for your “good white man” bona fides. I understand it, because for a long time, I was one of those black people trotted out by supposed white friends who invoked my name any time someone called them racist, including my nearly two-decade-long membership in a mostly white evangelical church.

And I used to let them, even after I knew they had crossed into racism or defended a church structure that all but ensured white church members would be the leaders and black ones relegated to following. It felt necessary in order to maintain relationships I knew would mean daily interactions I couldn’t avoid – and in some ways still cherished. When I began to call them out, they acted as though I had betrayed them, in the same way Meadows acted betrayed even though he had done the dirty deed.

It’s just that Meadows didn’t count on Tlaib calling him out, because he didn’t know that Tlaib, a freshman member of Congress whose Palestinian-American heritage tracks from outside the Deep South, didn’t get the memo about the Magnolia and Sable curtains, even as Meadows knew he could count on Cummings to ensure the curtains wouldn’t be fully torn asunder.

That speaks to a deeper, developing divide within the Democratic Party. Some members, such as Tlaib, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, each of whom called out Meadows’ racist act during the hearing in various ways, have made it clear they have no plans to play by the Magnolia-Sable rules, while Cummings and other Democratic stalwarts still see some usefulness for it.

That’s why Democrats are struggling between being frank about Trump voters – people who knowingly put a bigot in the White House – and speaking hard truths about current racial divides and soft-pedaling their views about voters who chose Trump in 2016 but might be persuaded to choose differently in 2020.

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It’s the kind of tension that bubbles up occasionally during a racial awakening and reckoning. It’s a sign that the long-awaited grappling with the complexity of race has begun and won’t end any time soon.