In his defiant declaration this week that he is not racist, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) used several tired tropes: Not only is he good friends with a black colleague, he said, he has black family members. Confronted about a comment he made in 2012, in which he said it was time to send President Barack Obama “home to Kenya,” he asserted that he doesn’t have “a racial bone” in his body.
Meadows found himself defending his racial bona fides Wednesday after a dramatic moment during a hearing of the House Oversight Committee featuring Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney. Cohen testified that Trump is a racist.
As Meadows challenged Cohen’s description of Trump, Lynne Patton, an official of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a former employee of the Trump Organization, stood just over the lawmaker’s shoulder. Meadows said Patton, who is black, also disputed Cohen’s characterization of Trump. “She says there is no way she would work with an individual who is racist,” Meadows said.
The display prompted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to comment that Meadows’s use of Patton in that manner “is insensitive. . . . The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.”
Meadows took great offense, vigorously demanding that Tlaib’s words be stricken from the record. He shot back: “It’s racist to suggest that I asked her to come in for that reason."
By casting himself as the victim of racism, Meadows refused to even consider that his actions were offensive to Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. In the end the congresswoman apologized to Meadows, telling him that she was not calling him a racist. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is black and chairman of the committee, said that he and his Republican colleague were friends.
The following day, after videos resurfaced of his comments about sending Obama “home to Kenya or wherever it is,” Meadows said he no longer supported the conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States. (Trump himself long promoted the Obama birther theory.) Meadows also declared: “I can tell you that anyone who knows me knows that there is not a racial bone in my body.”
We talked to Christopher Petrella, director of advocacy and strategic partnerships for the Antiracist Research and Policy Center and a race studies professor at American University, about what the scene says about race relations in the current political climate. Although some whites assert that the country has made great racial progress, Petrella said, their language and posture reflect age-old racist attitudes.
That Meadows immediately reached for the “black friend” trope is an indication of how little has changed, Petrella said, adding that the argument dates back to slavery. He pointed to an article published last year, “A brief history of the ‘Black Friend,’ ” as a helpful primer on the use of that argument.
“There’s a certain kind of noxious racial illiteracy absorbed by the vast majority of white people, which makes us believe that systems of racial injustice aren’t a problem,” Petrella said. “It makes us more apt to subscribe to these flimsy progress narratives, that racial progress is an unbroken line and we’re getting better all the time."
Here are three takeaways from our conversation:
In addition to the “black friend” argument, some people defend their racist rhetoric and actions by asserting that they “don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
That phrase “in many ways, supports this colorblind ideology … which says that the best way to uproot structural and systemic forms of racism is simply not to talk about it because we don’t see color,” Petrella said, noting that the phrase gained popularity during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Republican president used the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to judge black people not by “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” to argue for a colorblind racial ideology that opposed affirmative action and anti-poverty programs, Petrella said.
“ 'Not a racist bone in my body’ doesn’t make sense. It’s not politically and socially legible outside of the colorblind racism framework,” he said. “That’s what gives it wings and why a number of white people continue to use those types of expressions.”
People defend their racist rhetoric and actions by declaring that they are deeply offended and that those who called them out are the real racists.
“The seductive Hollywood script of how incidents of racial injustice are handled is very much that we’re not gonna critique systems,” Petrella said. “And by end of the movie, we’re each going to come to a mutual and quasi-elevated understanding of how we were each wrong in this situation. And we’re gonna hug it out and move on and leave intact the very systems that got us here in the first place."
The blowup in Wednesday’s hearing “very much followed your sort of typical racial injustice cinematic script, and that leaves a lot of things unsaid and creates what some people might call an imaginary resolution to a real contradiction,” he said.
People tend to dismiss such incidents as outliers, despite evidence to the contrary, saying we should instead focus on racial progress.
“The progress narrative would essentially cast Meadows as an aberration, an anomaly. My counterargument would be white supremacy is one of the most central organizing principles of the United States, today and always,” Petrella said. “With very few exceptions, to be socialized as white in this country is to be socialized as an agent of white supremacy, unwittingly or otherwise.
“What it means to be white and anti-racist is to try to undo one’s own unwitting racism every single day. And that’s really a never-ending project.” He said that means understanding that the work is about dismantling systems of racism, rather than believing that mere “proximity to a black friend is the solution to racism.”
"I find the expression 'not a racist bone in my body’ by a white person to be completely disingenuous and extraordinarily arrogant. It suggests to me that there’s been no deep or sustained self-analysis of one’s position in the world, one’s relationship to power. That’s lamentable, and it’s dangerous.”