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Opinion Don’t fall for the whitewashing of Steve Bannon’s past and present

Here's what you need to know about the man who went from being Breitbart News's chairman to Trump's campaign CEO and now to chief White House strategist. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

We are in that period after the general election when President-elect Donald Trump and his team enjoy a honeymoon. Stories recounting the campaign’s electoral genius abound. Profiles of his Cabinet picks and staff are so glowing that you need sunglasses to read them. It’s a custom I respect. The incoming administration should be given a chance, especially to prove us naysayers-from-jump wrong. But the whitewashing of Steve Bannon is unacceptable.

The incoming chief White House strategist and senior counselor to the president turned the conservative into a repository of breathtaking racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic garbage. In July during the Republican National Convention, Bannon told Sarah Posner of Mother Jones, “We’re the platform for the alt-right.” And let’s be clear, saying “alt-right” is the rhetorical equivalent of dressing up white supremacy in black-tie. Just a fancy wrapper on something inherently repugnant. Like when Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter this month, “I’m not a white nationalist.”

[Why is Steve Bannon given a pass when Jeremiah Wright was kicked to the curb for less?]

What’s even more ridiculous is what friends are saying to defend Bannon. I found three instances in the New York Times profile of the man who will take white nationalism to the Oval Office maddening.

Mr. Bannon’s backers note that several of Breitbart’s top editors and managers are Jewish — as was Mr. Breitbart himself — and the site is staunchly pro-Israel. They also point out that Mr. Bannon’s longtime assistant, Wendy Colbert, is African-American; so are Sonnie Johnson, a conservative writer he promoted on Breitbart, and a former Goldman colleague who has been a close friend for three decades and considers Mr. Bannon family, but who asked not to be named to avoid a flood of media attention.

When will folks learn that having minority employees does not cleanse one of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia or homophobia? Most galling is the pass given Bannon simply because his longtime assistant is African American. That sound you hear is almost every black person in America muttering, “That don’t mean nuthin’.” My grandmother cleaned white people’s homes in her home town in North Carolina in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Mary Beth Meredith, Mr. Bannon’s sister, said accusations of personal bigotry against him were “absolutely absurd.” “We have interfaith marriages in our own family,” she said. “We have interracial marriages — our family is a microcosm of the U.S.”

Is it me or did Meredith completely undercut her argument? If her family is indeed “a microcosm of the U.S.,” then it is not “absolutely absurd” to level charges of personal bigotry against her brother considering the lengthy list of examples that validate the accusation. Also, that comment made me think of the great line from comedian Chris Rock’s 1999 stand-up show “Bigger and Blacker.” “Whoever you hate will end up in your family,” Rock told the crowd at the Apollo Theater. “You don’t like gays? You’re gonna have a gay son. You don’t like Puerto Ricans? Your daughter’s gonna come home with Livin’ La Vida Loca!”

And the problem with Bannon’s sister’s remark is highlighted later in the Times story when a former colleague brought up Bannon’s views on genetic superiority and voting.

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.
“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

Yes, the ongoing fascination with the supposed superiority of whites should be considered a symptom of mental illness. But did you catch the racial freedom paper Bannon reportedly gave his assistant? Exceptions are made for those who prove themselves worthy of absolution from that white person’s withering prejudicial gaze.

[Deen’s distinctions: ‘N–––––s’ vs. ‘professional black men’]

Bannon saying, “She’s different. She’s family,” is just like Paula Deen saying during a 2013 deposition that she didn’t slip and use the n-word to describe a group of black men working a “really southern plantation wedding” because “that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.” And this is the exact same distinction that a white friend made with me back in grade school in New Jersey. “There are black people, and there are n–––––s,” she told me with the sincerity of a compliment. “You are a black person.”

Keep these things in mind as you read one profile after another that wonders aloud whether Bannon personally is racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic. That to some degree whitewashes his worrisome past and present. Bannon will have the ear of the president of the United States, and his brand of “nationalism” will influence policy at home and abroad. We must not normalize what he represents.

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