Opinion

A half-century after Selma, the ‘black friend’ defense is going strong

Too many Americans, like the Oscar-winning ‘Green Book,’ think racism can be solved by making an ‘exceptional’ black friend — as long as the family doesn’t move in next door

Rep. John Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The specter of partisan rancor — fueled in part by Mark Meadows’ performance at the Cohen hearings — hangs over this year’s commemoration of Bloody Sunday, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — On a “Meet the Press” appearance a few weeks ago, Ohio Democrat and maybe presidential hopeful Sen. Sherrod Brown was commenting on that slam-bang start to Black History Month, Virginia officials in blackface, when he said, “This country hasn’t dealt well with issues of race. We have a president who’s a racist.” That led host Chuck Todd to ask Brown if he believed Donald Trump was a racist “in his heart,” to which Brown answered, “Well, I don’t know what ‘in his heart’ means.”

Exactly.

What’s in someone’s heart matters not at all when there is a long list of well-documented racist acts that have affected the lives of actual human beings. Brown mentioned a few off the top of his head; few sentient beings would have had trouble doing the same.

Yet that particular question is still being framed in that way. Why does being called out for racist acts spur more outrage than the acts themselves? Wouldn’t it be nice, to quote the Beach Boys, if that righteous indignation could be bottled up and used as a weapon to fight racism? No chance. It’s easier to limit the definition of “racist” to someone who burns a cross on a lawn, murders worshippers in a church or synagogue or mosque, or totes burning torches while shouting “Jews will not replace us.”

Oh wait, as low-key reactions from the president and some of his supporters after Charlottesville prove, even that last one won’t necessarily earn the “racist” label.

Over this past weekend, Brown joined other politicians — some 2020 presidential hopefuls and many others — in a march across Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate officer and known as the site of a pivotal moment in civil rights history. They walked and sang and prayed and listened to speeches about the fight over voting rights that spurred the events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965.

The demonstrators were peaceful 54 years ago; the reaction to American citizens demanding simple justice was not. (When some deride the “social justice warriors” of today as though fighting for equality is something to be mocked, I wonder what side they would have been on then.) John Lewis of Georgia was a young man when, with blood streaming down his face after officers of the law cracked his skull open, he still rushed to save others. He returned to that history as a congressman, visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice while noting how many of the lynching victims remembered there would have been his age.

On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015, the group of lawmakers in attendance was bipartisan. But this year, when true voting rights remain an elusive goal — with state legislatures arguing over bills that would place more requirements on the franchise — Democrats far outnumbered Republicans.

ICYMI: Meadows and Tlaib clash over insinuations of racism

If GOP Rep. Mark Meadows were serious about ridding the country of vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, and learning about the violence that greeted any demand for civil rights, the medical experiments that treated African-Americans as less than human, and the segregated schools, housing covenants and employment discrimination still leaving their mark, he would have joined his Washington colleagues as well as the ordinary citizens who showed up despite the stormy weather.

But Meadows had used up all his outrage during the House Oversight Committee’s hearing featuring testimony from former Trump fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen. Meadows, of course, has been immortalized for his clueless stunt of trotting out Trump administration HUD official Lynne Patton to stand silently while he spoke for her, to vouch for the racial sensitivity of the president, and then becoming red-faced when a parade of House committee members, women of color, called him out on it.

When it was pointed out to him that being in proximity to black people, or black-adjacent, hardly serves as inoculation from wrongdoing, well, the tears and denials started to flow. I’m just happy Uncle Mark did not bring along the heretofore unknown family members of color he highlighted as corroborating evidence.

When Cohen commented on the lack of black executives in the Trump organization, it didn’t make the president look too good either. Meadows later had to resort to that meaningless trope that he did not have a “racist bone” in his body, though no X-rays were provided.

At the hearing, Democrats did not need to call an endless list of rebuttal witnesses, as so much is already on the record, statements and acts that a photo of Trump hugging a black kid or sitting next to a somnambulant Ben Carson cannot erase.

To use just one universally admired example, Michelle Obama, whose inspiring words have been quoted by the current first lady, takes the president to task in her best-selling book “Becoming” for his crass exploitation of the racist “birther” lie that Barack Obama was not born in America: “What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls? … Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk.”

Those words could equally indict Meadows, a birther stalwart who served up that same racist nugget as a laugh line on more than one occasion.

Too many Americans, like the Oscar-winning “Green Book,” think racism can be solved by making an “exceptional” black friend, and maybe inviting him or her over for dinner — as long as the family doesn’t move in next door. In real life, hate crimes are rising, and a white nationalist Coast Guard lieutenant was planning, from his desk, to start a race war. Christopher P. Hasson was accused by prosecutors of wanting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” including named politicians and journalists.

About that hateful plot hatched by a member of the military, Trump, Meadows and their GOP colleagues said little, saving those raised voices to comically defend themselves when the proof of all-American racism plays out every day in an increasingly polarized country.

The president spent more time excoriating another Oscar winner, director and screenwriter Spike Lee, for using his acceptance speech to celebrate his ancestors, including a college-educated grandmother one generation out of slavery (true American history) and asking fellow citizens to choose love over hate.

Instead of looking to a “black friend” to validate what’s in your “heart,” Americans should look to history, perhaps starting with the lessons of the not-that-long-ago march in Selma, for a path to genuine justice and reconciliation.

The journey is nowhere near finished.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. 

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