Yet he never liked that term. He said that he did a lot for blacks. He did not only respect blacks, he loved them. And to prove his point, he raised his right hand and motioned for a black man standing in a corner to stand next to him.
"My best friend here, I would not go anywhere without him," the old man said in a hoarse whisper as the black man rolled his eyes and stared away.
This old man was George Wallace and this disturbing scene is captured in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls". The film showed how Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, who had once hired a Ku Klux Klan leader to play the role of editor of his speech, had helped spark a series of events macabre that resulted in the murder of four black girls in a 1963 bomb attack on the church.
We would like to think that the time of whites trotting against their black friends to refute their racism is over. Wednesday, at the hearing of Michael Cohen, we attended a sequel to this scene Wednesday, during a series of extraordinary moments illustrating how bad habits die hard.
One of those moments happened when Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, asked a black woman who was working for the Trump government to help refute Cohen's allegations that President Trump was racist . Lynne Patton, the woman, stood silently beside Meadows when the legislator told Cohen:
"You made some very damaging remarks about the president that Ms. Patton does not agree with – in fact, it has to do with your claim of racism," Meadows said. "She says that as a girl born in Birmingham, Alabama, it was impossible for her to work for a racist person." How do you reconcile those two? "
Cohen gave his answer to Meadows – "And I should not either as a son of a Holocaust survivor" – but I think there are three other points that I'm going through. would have raised about what we've all seen:
Racism is not about the good guys versus the bad guys
This scene reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with Wallace's daughter.
I had traveled to Alabama to meet Peggy Wallace Kennedy interviewing children of notoriously racist politicians who had been challenging symbols during the civil rights movement. Yet you would never have heard of their racism just by talking to their kids. They all said the same thing:
My father was not racist. Some of his best friends were blacks.
It's a common mistake that some people make when talking about racism: reduce it to nice people rather than bad guys. The conclusion: people can not be racist because they were kind to blacks and blacks in their personal lives.
I remember talking to Wallace's daughter when she talked about one of her father's best friends, a black man named Eddie.
"It was my father's left hand and he loved it absolutely," she said. "My father said," If I had to choose between you and Eddie, "I would say," I know, dad, you'd pick Eddie. "They loved each other and had a great deal of mutual respect."
Now, this is not for taking on Wallace 's daughter. She is a remarkable woman who has lived a life far removed from the racial hatred associated with her father's segregationist days. But citing her personal relationships is a common defense, says Carol Anderson, one of America's leading race commentators.
"It's a fig leaf for racism, it's part of the toolbox used to defend and deflect accusations of racism," said Anderson, author of "One Person, No Vote: How to Remove voters destroy our democracy ".
Whether he likes it or not, Meadows invoked this rhetoric later at Wednesday's hearing when he reacted to a Democratic legislator who had reproached him for trotting up a person of black race to challenge Cohen's allegation that Trump would be racist.
"My nieces and nephews are people of color, not many people know," Meadows said.
Virtually all people who study racism will say: Personal relationships are not like vaccines that immunize you against racism.
Anderson calls this "the illusion of inclusion" – thinking that your black or brown friend means you are free from any taint of racism.
"We think racism is just a personal belief system, it's just nice people and bad people who are nice," Anderson said. "It ignores the structures we have put in place."
Why can not we be friends?
Which brings me to the next element of the Anderson Toolkit: the emphasis on friendship, not on justice.
On the day of Cohen's hearing and Meadows exchanges on racism, an article in The New York Times illustrates what Anderson is talking about.
But what story do you think drew the most attention: Meadows claiming that Trump and he were not racist, or the huge racial inequalities that are so deeply embedded in our daily lives that almost no one notices them anymore?
Sometimes it seems that some whites are more outraged to be called racist than the damage caused by racism itself.
I think that's why so many people of color speak a different language than some whites in terms of racism. We focus on justice; they fix on the behavior.
I had a reminder of that last weekend in a Sunday school class.
The church I attend is studying a book called "White Fragility", which examines how some whites can not speak fluently or honestly about race. During Sunday's session, my classmates asked many questions about how whites should treat people of color:
Was I racist when I said that? a person asked. What should I do when a black person passes by me on the street? Would it be condescending to nod?
I was the only black person in the class and what I said seemed to spoil the mood.
I'm not so interested in whites fighting for their racist thoughts, I said. What matters most to me is the adoption of laws that combat discrimination and guarantee racial justice.
"No one has pure motives," I told them.
The room is killed. There was a nervous nod. The conversation has moved to another subject. And I could see all those dinner invitations I had imagined drying up.
How did I almost become a pledge?
That was another word we heard after Wednesday's hearing. Some critics have called Meadows' gesture "token" or accused him of using a black "token".
There is one group that the Conservatives seem to never separate: the black token.
One could almost hear the jaws of some people falling when Meadows asked Patton to get up. Patton, however, as Meadows, rejected the idea that the movement was racist.
It was surprising, however, that neither Meadows nor Patton seemed to have looked at how hard this moment had been.
Anderson says it reminded him of the infamous story of Sarah Baartman, an African woman who had been exposed in European showgoers in the early 19th century. Whenever a white person signals to a black person to come stand next to them to be exposed, you enter a dangerous territory.
"Putting Patton in the spotlight – all that has been done has been to reaffirm the kind of inherent racism that reigns across the Republican Party," Anderson said.
This has reminded me of something else: you will never be unemployed if you are ready to reassure some whites that they are not racist.
I say that because I was once asked to be a black token.
During one of my first journalism jobs, I wrote a column that defended black political conservatives. I was a modest journalist, but after this chronicle, my career opportunities suddenly widened.
I was invited to go on radio and television and I received letters of encouragement from White Conservatives. Then a conservative editor of one of the largest newspapers in the country offered me a plum job – an editorial job -.
During my interview with him, I could see what he wanted. I was going to be exposed. I was going to be the black voice that told people to stop complaining about racism and getting off the shoe.
I refused work because I did not think it would be a good choice. Yet for a moment, I regretted it. I talked about the job to a friend and the publisher offered it to him. I still remember having visited my friend in his office, saw his photo in the newspaper and the beginning of his career, and saying to me: Damn, I should have had to take the path conservative.
It was years ago and I do not regret my decision anymore. But what I regret is that I still see the same pattern reproduce again and again: trot a black person to prove that you are not racist.
Wallace did it. And the practice continues today.
One day, however, a white person may ask a black person to stand by their side to vindicate the absence of racism and the story will end. another way.
They will not go out, get up or sell.
Instead, they will say:
"I will not be your black friend today."