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Renée Graham

Your black friend doesn’t make you woke

During Michael Cohen’s congressional hearing, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina brought out Lynne Patton, a black former Trump Organization employee, to ward off charges of presidential racism.
During Michael Cohen’s congressional hearing, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina brought out Lynne Patton, a black former Trump Organization employee, to ward off charges of presidential racism.Associated Press

February began with a Democratic governor apologizing for wearing blackface, and ended with a Republican congressman using a black woman as a prop to prove that the most racist president in modern history is not a racist.

Yeah, it was that kind of Black History Month.

During Michael Cohen’s congressional hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina held an unintentional clinic on how not to talk about racism. After Cohen, President Trump’s former consigliere and fixer, called Trump “a racist,” Meadows showed his receipts — Lynne Patton, a black former Trump Organization employee. On cue, she stood up behind Meadows like some kind of talisman meant to ward off charges of presidential racism.

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Patton “doesn’t agree with” Cohen’s “very demeaning comments about the president,” Meadows said. “She says that as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is no way that she would work for an individual who was racist. How do you reconcile the two of those?”

Meadows did all the talking because props are meant to be seen, not heard. And that’s exactly how Patton, now a federal Housing and Urban Development official, was used.

In a nation loathe to have meaningful conversations about (or take substantive action on) racism, Meadows’ decision to try the “I have a black friend” defense of Trump is pathetic and hollow. (What, Diamond and Silk weren’t available?) Yet he held Patton up as a human shield to protect Trump from accusations of racism, as though having black friends, employees, or even relatives renders someone immune to racist beliefs or actions.

Past and present history dictates otherwise. When he was 22, Strom Thurmond fathered a daughter with his family’s 16-year-old African-American maid; a South Carolina senator, he was also a lifelong racist and segregationist. Sports team owners build successful franchises on black sweat and excellence, then disparage those same players when they express opinions with which their white bosses disagree.

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And Trump, who regularly vilifies undocumented immigrants, has employed them in his resorts even when their status is an open secret.

How do you reconcile that, Rep. Meadows?

Two or three times a month, I get emails from readers demanding proof of Trump’s racism. I rarely respond because anyone still asking that question, despite ample evidence, probably wouldn’t acknowledge racism if it was fashioned into a cross, soaked in gasoline, and burned on a black family’s lawn. Often, they use the same tactic as Meadows in defending Trump by mentioning HUD secretary Ben Carson or fired Trump staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman. Like Meadows, they’ve convinced themselves that a racist would never hire a black person.

They know nothing about America.

At the Cohen hearing, congresswomen of color weren’t having it. Representative Brenda Lawrence from Michigan called Meadows’s stunt “totally insulting.” Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts flipped the script. “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African-Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘----hole countries,’ and refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend, and still be racist?”

Pressley, of course, was speaking of Trump, and Cohen gave the only possible answer: “Yes.”

When Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan called out Meadows’s exploitation of Patton as “racist,” Meadows blew a Senator Lindsey Graham-sized gasket, and did what so many white people do — he accused Tlaib of racism for suggesting his actions were racist, and for calling him a racist. Tlaib never called Meadow a racist, although given some of Meadows’s past comments about President Obama, it wouldn’t have been totally off-base.

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As is often the case, Meadows — who mentioned his friendship with House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Representative Elijah Cummings, an African-American, and his own nieces and nephews of color — heard only his misconceived “wokeness.” He learned nothing about why some of his colleagues were deeply offended, and didn’t care. That Meadows believes a black person would not work for a racist shows a studied ignorance about the way this nation operates, and how black people must constantly adapt to survive.

In a racist nation, that often means working for racists.

Meadows’s outburst served dual purposes. It hijacked the hearing, turning the attention away from Cohen’s testimony that painted Trump as less a president, and more the capo of a crime family. And it resurrected the hoary old trick of making a racist action far less of a sin than calling someone a racist.

Using Patton’s presence to defang Trump’s racism — a fact beyond debate for decades — was a cynical ploy that only served to underline why this nation remains stymied by race. At least Virginia Governor Ralph Northam apologized for donning blackface 35 years ago. Meadows still believes he vindicated the president by using Patton’s black face to cover Trump’s belief in white supremacy.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.