YouTube isn’t that old, so I was almost surprised when I realized on Wednesday that the classic Jay Smooth video blog “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” has been around for more than 10 years. It still feels fresh to me because I watch it at least once every month or so, often as I am passing it along. I now consider its central thesis to be a sort of golden rule: distinguish between the “what they did” conversation and the “what they are” conversation. In other words: don’t get lost in what Jay calls the “rhetorical Bermuda Triangle.” That’s where we end up when someone says, such-and-so is a racist. Instead, focus solely on holding that person accountable for his or her racist deed. “I don’t care what you are,” Jay concludes. “I care about what you did.”
I tweeted the video on Wednesday in part because Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) had just followed Jay’s advice to the letter. The freshman Democrat from Detroit, elected in the Democratic blue wave of 2018, was one of the last to question Michael Cohen on Wednesday, when the former Trump attorney testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. But before she questioned Cohen, Tlaib turned her attention to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) to call him out for doing something racist. And she had her facts straight.
What Meadows did was have Lynne Patton stand up behind him. Yes, that alone was racist, because he used the black Trump appointee’s physical form to refute Cohen’s allegation that President Trump “is a racist.”
“He is a racist” is how Cohen had termed it in his opening statement, and since we’re following the Jay Smooth rule on this, I’m sorry that he did. Trump’s immediate priority after inauguration was banning travel by Muslims from certain countries, his administration has kidnapped and incarcerated undocumented immigrant children, and his xenophobic and quixotic push for an unnecessary border wall set off the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and forced financial hardship upon more than one million government employees and low-wage contractors. Cohen didn’t directly mention any of that.
Cohen was thinking along the right track. He talked about something Trump allegedly did. “While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago,” he recounted in his prepared opening statement, “he commented that only black people could live that way. And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid. And yet I continued to work for him.” But that “He is a racist” statement haunted Cohen because rather than focusing on the president’s racist deeds in and out of office, he made it about what is in Trump’s soul. I doubt that even someone who worked for that man for a decade could discern that.
It is easy to see how Cohen fell into that trap. He spoke to the kind of bigotry that American culture trains us to recognize, because it is easy to encapsulate. It is the brand of racism that we often see in Hollywood racial melodramas, measuring the growth or descent of white characters by when they either stop or start using the word “nigger.” We all, or at least the “very fine people” among us, can understand that the Ku Klux Klan and other racist terrorists are bad. We have progressed, some would say, to the point where naked racism has become conspicuously villainous. However, this has not translated into a better or more thorough collective understanding of racism in this nation, and thus we as a society are left still ill-prepared to confront it with the might that the fight requires. Too many white people, in particular, have become so afraid of being called a racist that they no longer can even define the word.
Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chairman, proved on more than one occasion Wednesday to be exactly that kind of white person. “You made some very demeaning comments about the president that Ms. Patton doesn’t agree with,” Meadows said to Cohen when his turn came around. “In fact, it has to do with your claim of racism. 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?” I could go into the resulting exchange, but it would be pointless. Again, the racism debate became about what Trump is. Conversation, derailed.
— CSPAN (@cspan) February 27, 2019
Meadows could have made this argument without Patton present. Patton — who, despite a staggering lack of experience, oversees New York and New Jersey for Housing and Urban Development — was nearing the end of a one-month stay in New York City public housing at the time. (Ironic that she chose Black History Month for the assignment, which critics derided as a publicity stunt.) And Patton had already posted on Instagram that though she had a close friendship with Cohen, she disagreed with his assessment of the president’s racism. Still, Meadows thought it would be best to display her in the hearing.
Tlaib, to her credit, called that mess out for what it was. The congresswoman remarked that it was “insensitive” for Meadows “to use a black woman as a prop.” She added, “As a person of color in this committee, that is how I felt at that moment and I wanted to express that. I’m saying that in itself it is a racist act.”
Tlaib’s fellow congresswoman from Michigan, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, had already scalded Meadows for this, calling his stunt “insulting.” But it was necessary, I thought, to take it to Tlaib’s level of accountability. Meadows disagreed and immediately interrupted Tlaib and demanded that her words be stricken from the record. He complained to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chairman. The colors of Meadows’s nieces and nephews suddenly became relevant. That, along with the Patton exploitation, was a very Green Book way of thinking about things: believing that his mere proximity to or relationships with black and brown folks had somehow, over time, immunized him from committing racism.
Rep. Mark Meadows on 2012 "birther" comments: "It was early on in a primary and certainly didn’t indicate any personal malice that I would have toward any president… Anyone who knows me knows that there is not a racial bone in my body." https://t.co/Kfmg7ZxzkO pic.twitter.com/dmaEhpwRsv
— The Hill (@thehill) February 28, 2019
Let me illustrate why the Patton move was racist. It was tokenism, for one. To say that African Americans are poorly represented within the Trump administration is putting it mildly; Ben Carson is his only black Cabinet official and there are no black members of his senior White House staff. However, finding a black person to stand up in the middle of a House committee hearing while a white Congressman gave voice to her opinions like a ventriloquist was a deeply disturbing sight, even more so than the typical example of the pathetic “I have a black friend” defense. Granted, Patton made her own curious choice to be there. She later told the Washington Post that Meadows contacted her late the night before because he was, she said, impressed by her “longtime pushback against accusations of racism.” Patton can believe what she wants, including that she wasn’t a token. It is a free-ish country.
But Tlaib was also correct because Meadows sought to use Patton, consciously or not, to twist the meaning of racism. One black woman’s strangely generous opinion of Trump’s racial attitudes could perhaps outweigh Cohen’s lightweight standard. As Jay Smooth would say: when you make accusations of racism about who people are, you end up with a guy like Meadows pointing to one black person and saying, “She doesn’t think Trump is racist!” and then later uttering things like, “I have relatives and friends of color!” as if they are germane to the conversation at hand.
In a skillful bit of chairmanship, Cummings interrupted the flow of Meadows’s crocodile tears to allow Tlaib to clarify that she was indeed following the Jay Smooth principle: what they did, not what they are. She offered an apology to Meadows if her words were misinterpreted, which I took as a bit of harmless diplomacy. But she clearly had a case for the Who They Are argument with Meadows, since almost immediately after the hearing videos emerged depicting Meadows, in 2012, indulging in birther rhetoric about sending President Obama ‘back to Kenya.” (Asked about it Thursday morning, per CNN, Meadows said that he “certainly didn’t indicate any personal malice” and remarked that “anyone who knows me knows that there is not a racial bone in my body,” again missing the entire point.)
What mattered, though, is that Tlaib and Cummings ensured that her rebuke stayed on the record. It will be good to have a reference to point to the next time someone like Mark Meadows tells us what racism actually looks like.