Prop Goes the Weasel: Did the Racial Sideshow at the Cohen Hearings Demonstrate that America's Deepest Wound Will Never Heal?
The vehement exchange between two members of Congress during Michael Cohen’s testimony on February 27 was more than a failure to communicate. The argument itself was not only a distraction from the main event, it struck at the core of America's oldest wound.
In case you missed it, a white congressman (Mark Meadows) trotted out a black female employee of the Trump administration (Lynne Patton) as proof that the president is not racist. A freshman congresswoman (Rashida Tlaib), who is Muslim, responded by referring to Ms. Patton as a prop, claiming that Meadows' tactic was itself racist. This led to a spirited digression, which achieved what sideshows always do--divert attention from the main purpose of the hearings.
Although the president's former attorney and "fixer" called Donald Trump a racist during his opening statement, the main reason for the hearing was not to debate the president’s racism. It was to determine if he had broken the law.
It is interesting to note, however, that the heated exchange between Meadows and Tlaib was the only instance during Cohen's testimony in which a member of the GOP attempted to defend President Trump against Cohen’s many allegations. Their disciplined and well-executed strategy was to discredit Cohen as a convicted felon, liar and cheat who has committed fraud himself and therefore cannot be believed. End of discussion. We don't want to hear anymore.
This may have been sufficient for those already convinced that the hearings amounted to nothing more than a partisan power-play by Democrats to take down the president. The usual GOP pundits took to the airwaves to promote this view, and anyone who subscribes to their narrative on a regular basis was undoubtedly convinced that this is so. Never mind that compromised witnesses have long been used to prosecute RICO cases and bring organized crime bosses to justice. Perhaps they prefer to apply legal principles selectively.
THE SIDESHOW PIVOT
It was easy enough for other commentators to pivot away from Cohen's allegations and focus on the racial sideshow. Unfortunately, Congresswoman Tlaib was not the best spokesperson against racism. Because her anti-Zionist views have been conflated with anti-Semitism she became a ready target for those who believe she is herself a racist. All of which breathed more oxygen into the sideshow.
These diversions may provide solace for those who prefer not to think about the documents Cohen submitted during his testimony. A copy of the hush-money check for $35 thousand, for instance, signed by the president while he was in office, or the financial statements documenting that the Trump organization inflated its worth for insurance purposes and deflated it to pay lower taxes.
It may be true that it's impossible to give credence to Michael Cohen. But prosecutors and investigators will do what they always do in cases involving tainted witnesses. They will look elsewhere for corroboration of what he said. Secondary and tertiary sources will determine if laws were broken.
THE DEEP-STATE SMOKE SCREEN
Surely, the GOP will throw mud at any damning information that comes up as a result of Cohen's leads. As in the past, they will probably seek to discredit any investigation by claiming that it is politically motivated by deep-state hacks out to overthrow the nation’s duly elected chief executive. The president himself relied on this argument during his lengthy speech at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, a few days later.
But this is a lopsided frame that asks Americans to forget the larger context. All government officials must swear from day one to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States, regardless of who happens to occupy the Oval Office. Apparently, some co-called Conservatives prefer to talk about strict adherence to the Constitution only when it relates to judgeships, ignoring all other applications.
Nevertheless, the deep-state ploy will undoubtedly play well with a base already predisposed to believe it. But it is unlikely to convince anyone who sees the fallacy in this argument. After all, if someone steals a million dollars, and we find out about it from one of his enemies, that does not mean he didn't steal the money. You may not like how the information was obtained, but that does not mean the thief is innocent.
JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM
Fortunately, all these attempts to confuse the issues did not obscure the razor-sharp questions asked by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during the Cohen hearing. Regardless of what you think of her politics, it's impossible to deny the effectiveness of her inquiries regarding Trump golf properties that appear to have been subsidized by taxpayer funds on the basis of deceptive property valuations.
ONE BLACK FRIEND & THE WHITE GAZE
Given these uncomfortable realities, it's easy to see why some preferred to focus on that racial squabble between Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Meadows. Especially if you're unaware that trotting out a black friend or colleague to prove you’re not racist is a tired old trick used by racists for decades. It’s a ruse that was exposed as early as the 1969 novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. And it’s been employed by corporations ever since affirmative-action quotas were introduced. Hiring managers and HR professionals have long joked that hiring a black woman, for instance, is a twofer. You get to count her twice, once for race and once for gender. Only it's not a joke. Especially if your organization's pay structure is designed to keep minorities from advancing economically. It’s too bad this happens because many friendships between blacks and whites are not part of this disgusting subterfuge at all.
Another weakness in the "one black friend" argument is how it proves rather than refutes “the white gaze” issue. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s a reference to how people of color become invisible and sometimes victimized in the majority culture, unless they begin to resemble white people more closely in terms of education, a house in the suburbs, a good job, and lighter skin, for instance. Writers like Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose award-winning books do not seek the approval of a white audience, have all addressed the issue.
HOW THE SHOWCASE BLACK BUDDY HIDES SYSTEMIC RACISM
Does Donald Trump’s black friend/employee absolve him of the charge of racism when his company refused to rent apartments to African Americans? Or when he took out full-page ads to accuse five innocent black and Latino men of raping a white jogger in Central Park? And refused to apologize even after DNA proved they couldn't have done it. Of course not.
This is a classic example of how the "showcase" minority or “spook who sat by the door” works. Like Congressman Meadows' unfortunate attempt, it is a sideshow meant to distract people from what you’re doing elsewhere, policies and behaviors that affect far more people of color than the one or two you showcase to prove you haven’t got a racist bone in your body.
It is 2019, and all we ever seem to do is chase each other around the mulberry bush. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on America’s racial wound, we’re reminded that we don’t. Electing a black president didn’t do it. Although the two-term Obama presidency demonstrated the enormous progress we’ve made in race relations, it did not prevent the resurgence of white nationalism, Charlottesville, and the white backlash that resulted in the 2016 presidential election.
WHY AMERICA'S DEEPEST WOUND, OUR ENDLESS CONFLICT OVER RACE,
MAY NEVER BE HEALED
As with Tlaib and Meadows, we’re not only using different definitions but irreconcilable perceptions and different mythologies. No one has explained this better than the Nobel-prize-winning writer Luigi Pirandello in his play, Six Characters in Search of an Author.
“Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, his own special world. How can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.”
If Pirandello is right, America will never heal the ancient wound inflicted at birth. But I'm not that pessimistic. Because I don't believe the presence of an obstacle means defeat is inevitable.
We may not be able to achieve racial healing as a nation, but I believe we can heal each other one by one if we choose to. I've seen it happen time and again during the course of my own life. I have family roots in Atlanta, where I grew up, and in New Orleans where I spent my summers. I've lived all over this country--in New York, California, and Washington State. In red states, blue states, and purple ones, too, in cities, rural areas, and along both coasts. And I have witnessed people everywhere reach out to one another and become friends.
Every case is different, but here's what I've observed. Race is a non-starter and a deal-breaker. Begin with race, and you've ended any chance of relationship before it's begun. Begin with race, and you deny another person all the other dimensions of his being. You're telling him that you don't recognize the infinitude that is his soul. And whether you realize it or not, you deny your own essence in that moment as well.
Does this mean you pretend not to see race? Of course not. But if you truly want to meet another person on the ground of humanity, you must start with the parts that cannot be seen. You've got to take people one at a time and not as a group. Then ask yourself: Is he kind? Is he honest? Is he trustworthy? Does he have a good heart? Is he reliable? Is he generous? Is he fair?
In other words, "Not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character." Remember that one?
Here's how James Baldwin put it during a 1963 interview:
"If I’m a novelist with a message, it’s only one... The effort one has got to make--the very dangerous effort-- to deal with other people as though they were simply human beings. To remember that no matter what the details of their life may be like or how different from you they may be superficially…or what the social pressures are…to deal with them the same way you want them to deal with you. No matter what price. No label, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being…The human core in everybody. It liberates you and it liberates me. Because when the chips are down, this is all there is. There isn’t anything else."
Here's the thing: It's not impossible to find the human core in someone else. It's certainly not as difficult or as dangerous today as it was for Baldwin in 1963. Despite racial sideshows played out on a national stage. Manipulative social media. A divisive president, and all other appearances to the contrary. All you have to do is look for it. All you have to do is listen.
Copyright ©2019 Andrew Hill, All rights reserved
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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