But maybe, just maybe, there’s something salvageable here. If we pay close attention, some of the month’s most egregious events can remind us of the history we should have learned.
Let’s work backward from this week, beginning with Michael Cohen’s hearing before the House Oversight Committee. The testimony of President Trump’s former lawyer was outrageous enough on its own, but one of the most eyebrow-raising scenes in the seven-hour saga centered on Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
For the purposes of defending Trump against Cohen’s allegations of racism, Meadows brought in Lynne Patton — a black Trump appointee — to stand silently behind him while he spoke, assuming, apparently, that by virtue of having hired a black person, Trump could not be racist. When he was informed by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) that using a black woman as a prop was racist itself, Meadows melted down. He called Tlaib a racist for daring to say such a thing and pointed to his relatives of color and even his friendship with Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (who, yes, is black) as evidence that he was not racist.By the end of his rant, Meadows was nearly tearing up in defense of his not-racist honor.
It was, in a word, absurd.
But out of this farce comes a teachable moment, one that we can use for at least the rest of 2019. No, as Tlaib accurately pointed out, having a black friend — or even black nieces or nephews — does not absolve you of racism. Attempting to use people of color as a shield is, in fact, offensive. And relatedly, breaking down because you’re hurt by the insinuation that you might possibly have done something racially offensive suggests you care more about your feelings than about actual racism.
Of course, this is a microcosm of the state of our racial politics. But maybe now that we know better, we can do better.
Speaking of people who should know better: Justin Fairfax. Virginia’s African American lieutenant governor was a rising star in the Democratic Party and, for a while, avoided being caught up in the blackface-stravaganza that was the Virginia government this month.
He might have even ascended to the highest role in the state had Gov. Ralph Northam (D) agreed to step down after his face-painting history was revealed. But Fairfax, alas, was caught up in a scandal of his own: In the span of two weeks, he was accused of sexual assault by two women — one during his college years at Duke University and the other at a 2004 political convention.
Yet, rather than quietly step down himself — or even step back a bit from the spotlight while the accusations were investigated — Fairfax went on the offensive. In an impromptu speech on the floor of the Virginia legislature, he likened his experience to a lynching. “I’ve heard much about anti-lynching on the floor of this very Senate,” he said , referencing recently passed bills that expressed remorse for the real lynchings that took place in the commonwealth of Virginia. “And yet we stand here in a rush to judgment in nothing but accusations and no facts, and we are deciding we are willing to do the same thing.”
In fact, we are not.
There’s a tradition of famous black men, especially those accused of sexual misconduct, comparing their experience to being lynched. Bill Cosby said as much during his trial, as did R. Kelly. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas famously invoked a “high-tech lynching” during his confirmation hearing. Even Smollett allegedly topped off his attack by hanging a noose around his own neck.
This needs to stop. Lynching is a stain on our nation’s history, one of the ugliest legacies of black enslavement and disenfranchisement in the United States. To invoke it as a craven defense dishonors that history even as we are finally, through much effort, beginning to give it the acknowledgment it deserves. The court of public opinion may be harsh, but it is not as harsh as being stalked, tortured and killed for no reason at all. After the events of this deranged Black History Month, perhaps we can once and for all agree that carelessly invoking this history is a mistake.