Among Michael Cohen’s many accusations against President Trump at Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing was an accusation of racism. He based this on Trump’s longstanding pattern of racist remarks, such as his claim that African Americans don’t vote for him because they’re “too stupid.” We have heard similar remarks in public. During the 2016 election campaign, House Speaker Paul Ryan called it a “textbook definition of a racist comment” when Trump said he couldn’t get a fair hearing in a civil case because the judge was of Mexican descent.
We already knew, of course, that Trump took the lead in spreading the unfounded rumor that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president born outside the United States. Most Americans have no difficulty seeing birtherism as a racially motivated campaign. Trump’s refusal to criticize white supremacist groups demonstrating in Charlottesville was another red flag, since passive acceptance of other people’s racism is part of the problem.
At the hearing, Republicans asked few questions and made little attempt to defend Trump on most of the charges, such as paying hush money and lying about it, or pursuing a huge real estate deal in Russia during the campaign and lying about it. The Republicans found themselves in the position of arguing that Cohen couldn’t be believed because of past lies, while supporting a president who told many of the same lies.
One Republican, however, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, took it upon himself to defend the president against the charge of racism. Trump cannot be a racist, you see, because here we have Lynne Patton, Trump’s African-American employee and family friend, who would never work for a racist. This prompted Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib to say that the “fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.” This in turn produced an outraged reaction from Congressman Meadows, who demanded that Tlaib’s comments be stricken from the record.
Critics of racism do have a dilemma when confronting what they see as racist behavior, as well as feeble, clueless defenses of that behavior. It is part of the more general dilemma we face when reacting to bad behavior of any kind. We want to be judicious and open-minded in our response, leaving open the possibility that a particular act does not fully define a person. Faced with a thoughtlessly selfish act on the part of a child, a wise parent prefers to convey the message “You’re better than that” instead of “You’re an awful person.” Ironically, the entire debate over Cohen’s testimony depended on whether Cohen was rising above his former self or continuing a pattern of bad behavior. It was the Republicans who refused to give Cohen the benefit of any doubt, while expecting African Americans to give whites accused of racism the benefit of every doubt.
And so instead of an honest discussion of particular behaviors, we get exchanges of moral outrage: “Who ya callin’ a racist?” vs. “Why are you acting like one?” Meadows insisted that “there is not a racial bone in my body,” but the media quickly discovered that he too had called for voters to “send Barack Obama back to Kenya or wherever he’s from.” I hope he is better than that, but that doesn’t excuse his racial insensitivity when he displays it.
I’m glad that Mark Meadows and Rashida Tlaib hugged and made up yesterday. Wouldn’t it be even better if they–or any of us–could have a honest discussion of the attitudes and behaviors that have kept minorities and women in their place? And in the context of congressional oversight, can’t we have an honest examination of the president’s attitudes and behaviors toward people of color, unencumbered by outraged reactions against any accusation of racism?