On Thursday afternoon, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) chatted and hugged on the House floor — an act that many interpreted as a truce following a day of news-cycle-dominating conversations about the intersection of racism, politics and friendship. In an interview, Meadows said the hug was about “civility.”
But others saw something darker: another example of a person of color forced to smooth things out after a tough conversation about race.
That conversation started Wednesday, when Meadows brought Lynne Patton, a former Trump Organization employee who now works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to the House Government Oversight hearing on Michael Cohen. After Cohen, who had been President Trump’s former personal lawyer, offered multiple examples of racist comments and actions by Trump, Meadows pushed back by leaning on Patton, who is black and was standing over the lawmaker’s shoulder.
Meadows suggested Patton’s jobs in the Trump business and the administration proved that Cohen was inaccurate in his characterization of Trump. “You made some very demeaning comments about the president that Ms. Patton doesn’t agree with,” he said. “She says that as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Ala., that there is no way that she would work for an individual who was racist. How do you reconcile the two of those?”
With those comments, Meadows was drawing on a dangerous cliche. Throughout history, individual members of marginalized communities have been held up as “proof” against accusations of discrimination, as if hiring a nonwhite employee automatically means a person doesn’t hold racist views.
Several Democratic lawmakers took issue with that characterization. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) opened her questioning by denouncing Meadows’s use of Patton, calling it “insulting” to African Americans referring to Trump’s history of racist comments. “Being a black American and having endured the public comments of racism from the sitting president as being a black person, I can only imagine what is being said in private,” she said. “And to prop up one member of our entire race of black people and say that nullifies that is totally insulting.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) asked Cohen: “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘s---hole countries’ and refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend and still be racist?”
He replied: “Yes.”
Tlaib, too, took Meadows to task, attempting to put Patton’s work relationships with Trump in perspective. “Just because someone has a person of color, a black person, working for them, does not mean they aren’t racist,” she said. “And it is insensitive that some would even say — the fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber in this committee is alone racist in itself.”
Meadows responded angrily, asking for Tlaib’s comments to be removed from the record.
Tlaib pushed back again: “I am trying as a person of color, Mr. Chairman, just to express myself and how I felt at that moment,” she said, addressing Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the committee.
Meadows responded forcefully. “There is nothing more personal to me than my relationships — my nieces and nephews are people of color,” he said. “... And to indicate that I asked someone who is a personal friend of the Trump family … that she’s coming in to be a prop; it’s racist to suggest that I asked her to come in here for that reason.”
In a particularly dramatic moment, he then turned to Cummings to vouch for his character. Cummings, who is black, called Meadows one of his “best friends” and said that he could see the pain Tlaib’s comments caused.
Cummings’s response highlighted the ways people of color often have to maintain positive relationships with white people, even if those people hold racist views, especially in professional spaces. And it may be a particular challenge in Congress, where relationships are often the best way to move legislation forward.
The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, who often writes about racism in American institutions, explained it this way on Twitter: “Tlaib/Meadows thing is a great example of the plight of the minority professional in majority white spaces (like Congress!). A colleague did something racist. Tlaib politely pointed it out — and has now had to spend 24 hours reassuring her white colleague that’s not a bad person.”
Jamilah Lemieux, a former editor at Ebony magazine, said: “When folks point to a Black acquaintance as evidence that they aren’t racist, what’s often lost is the fact that some POC don’t have the privilege of distancing themselves from every racist in their lives and the fact that some POC choose to endure for personal/professional gain.”
Since Wednesday’s hearing, at least three videos have surfaced of Meadows suggesting in the past that President Barack Obama should go back to Kenya, a popular conspiracy theory among those who promote the long-debunked claim that Obama was not born in the United States. It’s hard to imagine how Cummings would have felt watching those videos. And while it is not the responsibility of Cummings to teach Meadows about racism, some wonder how this week will shape the future of their friendship.
Because these conversations about racism — on Capitol Hill and across the country — are not going anywhere and, if anything. are expected to only increase as Americans move toward the 2020 presidential election to determine the direction they want this country to move in terms of racism and politics.