He was an old man, his once muscular body now confined to a wheelchair, his raspy voice barely rising above a whisper. But when he stuck a cigar in his mouth and glowered at the camera, you could still see the old fire in the eyes that inspired one man to call him “the most dangerous racist in America.”
Yet he never liked that term. He said he did plenty for black people. He didn’t just respect black people, he said, he loved them. And to prove his point, he raised his right hand and motioned for a black man standing in the corner to come stand next to him.
“My best friend right here. I wouldn’t go anywhere without him,” the old man said in a hoarse whisper as the black man rolled his eyes and looked off in the distance.
That old man was George Wallace, and that uneasy scene is captured in the 1997 Spike Lee documentary, “4 Little Girls.” The film showed how Wallace, the former Alabama governor who once hired a Ku Klux Klan leader to be his speechwriter, played a part in igniting a chain of grisly events that culminated with the murder of four black girls in a 1963 church bombing.
We’d like to think the days of white people trotting out their black friends to disprove their racism are over. But we saw a sequel to this scene Wednesday during a series of extraordinary moments at Michael Cohen’s hearing that illustrate how bad habits die hard.
One of those moments came when Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, asked a black woman who worked for the Trump administration to help him rebut Cohen’s allegations that President Trump was racist. The woman, Lynne Patton, stood silently next to Meadows as the lawmaker told Cohen:
“You made some very demeaning comments about the President that Ms. Patton doesn’t agree with. In fact, it has to do with your claim of racism,” Meadows says. “She says that as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is no way that she would work for an individual who was racist. How do you reconcile the two of those?”
Cohen gave his answer to Meadows – “And neither should I as the son of a Holocaust survivor” – but I think there are three more points I would have made about what we all saw:
Racism isn’t about nice people vs. mean people
That scene reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with Wallace’s daughter.
I had traveled to Alabama to meet Peggy Wallace Kennedy while interviewing the children of notoriously racist politicians who had been symbols of defiance during the civil rights movement. Yet you would never have known about their racism just by talking to their children. They all said the same thing:
My daddy wasn’t a racist. Some of his best friends were black people.
It’s a common mistake some people make when talking about racism: reduce it to nice people vs. mean people. The conclusion: People can’t be racist because they were nice to black and brown people in their personal lives.
I recall one conversation with Wallace’s daughter when she talked about one of her father’s best friends, a black man named Eddie.
“He was my daddy’s left hand, and my daddy absolutely loved him,” she told me. “My dad would say, ‘If I had to pick between you and Eddie,’ and I’d say, ‘I know, Dad, you’d pick Eddie.’ They just loved each other and had great respect for each other.”
Now this is not to pick on Wallace’s daughter. She is a remarkable woman who has lived a life far removed from the racial hatred associated with her father’s segregationist days. But citing one’s personal relationships is a common defense, says Carol Anderson, one of the leading commentators on race in America.
“That’s a fig leaf for racism; that’s part of the toolkit used to defend and deflect charges of racism,” says Anderson, author of “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy.”
Whether he intended to or not, Meadows invoked that rhetoric later in Wednesday’s hearing when he reacted to a Democratic lawmaker who criticized him for trotting out one black person to dispute Cohen’s allegation that Trump is racist.
“My nieces and nephews are people of color. Not many people know that,” Meadows said.
Talk to virtually anyone who studies racism and they will say: Personal relationships aren’t like vaccines that immunize you from racism.
Anderson calls it the “illusion of inclusion” – thinking your black or brown friend means you’re free of any taint of racism.
“We think of racism as simply a personal belief system, that it’s simply a matter of good people and bad people being nice,” Anderson says. “It ignores the structures that we put in place.”
Why can’t we be friends?
Which leads me to the next item in Anderson’s toolkit – the emphasis on friendship, not justice.
On the day of Cohen’s hearing and Meadows’ exchanges on racism, a story appeared in The New York Times that illustrates what Anderson is talking about.
A new report by the nonprofit EdBuild, the newspaper wrote, revealed that “school districts that predominantly serve students of color received $23 billion less in funding than mostly white school districts in the United States in 2016, despite serving the same number of students.”
But which story do you think got more attention: Meadows saying he and Trump weren’t racist, or the sprawling racial inequities that are so woven into our everyday lives that hardly anyone even notices them anymore?
Sometimes it seems as if some white people are more outraged over being called racist than the actual damage of racism itself.
I think that’s why so many people of color speak a different language than some white people when it comes to racism. We focus on justice; they fixate on behavior.
I had a reminder of that just last weekend in a Sunday school class.
The church I attend is studying a book called “White Fragility,” which examines how some whites can’t talk fluently or honestly about race. During Sunday’s session, my classmates had lots of questions about how whites should treat people of color:
Was I racist when I said this? one person asked. What should I do when a black person walks by me on the street? Would it be patronizing to nod?
I was the only black person in the class, and what I said seemed to spoil the mood.
I’m not as interested in white people beating themselves up over their racist thoughts, I said. What matters more to me is enacting laws that fight discrimination and ensure racial justice.
“No one has pure motives,” I told them.
The room went quiet. There was some nervous nodding. The conversation moved onto to another topic. And I could see all those dinner invitations I’d imagined getting dry up.
How I almost became a token
That was another word we heard after Wednesday’s hearing. Some critics called Meadows’ move “tokenism” or accused him of using a black “token.”
There’s one group it seems conservatives will never separate from: the black token.
You could almost hear some people’s jaws drop when Meadows asked Patton to stand. Patton, though, like Meadows, rejected the idea the move was racist.
She said she never intended to speak for all black people, that she was not a prop and that Democrats played the race card.
It was amazing, though, that neither Meadows nor Patton seemed to get how bad that moment looked.
Anderson says it reminded her of the infamous story of Sarah Baartman, an African woman who was put on display in European freak shows during the early 19th century. Whenever a white person beckons a black person to come stand next to them for display, you’re entering dangerous territory.
“Putting Patton on display like that – all that did was reaffirm the kind of inherent racism that courses through the Republican Party,” Anderson says.
It reminded me of something else: You will never be out of a job if you’re willing to reassure some white people that they are not racist.
I say this because I was once asked to be a black token.
During one of my first jobs as a newspaper reporter, I wrote a column that defended black political conservatives. I was a lowly beat reporter, but after that column my career opportunities suddenly expanded.
I was invited to go on radio and television and got back-slapping letters of encouragement from white conservatives. Then I was offered a plum position – a job as a columnist – by a conservative editor at one of the top newspapers in the country.
During my interview with him, I could see what he wanted. I was going to be put on display. I was going to be the black voice telling people to stop whining about racism and pull themselves up by their boot-straps.
I turned down the job because I didn’t think it would be a good fit. Still, for a while, I regretted it. I told a friend about the job, and the editor offered it to him. I still remember visiting my friend in his office, seeing his picture in the paper and how his career took off, and thinking: Damn, maybe I should have taken the conservative route.
That was years ago, and I no longer regret my decision. But what I do regret is that I’m still seeing the same pattern play out again and again: Trot out a black person to prove you’re not a racist.
Wallace did it. And the practice goes on today.
Someday, though, maybe a white person will ask some black person to stand by them to vouch for their lack of racism and the story will end another way.
They won’t come out, stand up or sell out.
Instead they’ll say:
“I won’t be your black friend today.”