Black Psychologist Gives Take On Meadows' Defense Against Charges Trump Is 'Racist'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'd like to go back now to a moment in Michael Cohen's testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week. Cohen said bluntly the president is racist. To rebut the charge, North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Meadows brought in Lynne Patton, an African-American woman who worked for The Trump Organization. And Meadows had her stand silently behind him while he quoted her as saying she wouldn't work for a racist. Two African-American lawmakers objected, calling the move insulting. But the last to speak, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, was even more blunt.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
RASHIDA TLAIB: The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee is alone racist in itself.
MARTIN: That is the exchange that went viral, with Meadows vehemently objecting and Tlaib first pressing her point but later apologizing. After all that, Mr. Meadows approached her on the House floor, and the two embraced and agreed to put it behind them. But the whole exchange has sparked a lot of commentary in some quarters, and it invites the question - does having a person of a different ethnic group as an employee or friend mean you can't be racist? And exactly what does it mean to say you have a friend of a different race? Deborah Plummer has thought a lot about this. She is a psychologist, and she's written a book called "Some Of My Friends Are:... The Daunting Challenges And Untapped Benefits Of Cross-Racial Friendships." And she's with us now.
Deborah Plummer, thanks so much for joining us.
DEBORAH PLUMMER: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, you know, Congressman Meadows took great offense at the congresswoman's suggestion that he was racist for bringing in Ms. Patton. I'll just play what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
MARK MEADOWS: My nieces and nephews are people of color. Not many people know that. And to indicate that I asked someone who is a personal friend of the Trump family, who has worked for him, who knows this particular individual - 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.
MARTIN: So you see, No. 1, he's calling Rashida Tlaib a racist. And secondly, I also want to highlight his emotion because he seems very upset at even the suggestion. How common is his reaction? And how common is his view of the situation?
PLUMMER: We still have - and maybe this is a good thing - a collective horror to be called racist. You know, people do shy away from that claim and do not want to be associated with racism. However, we don't have a shared understanding of what racism is. And we also have a 1960s understanding so that it's only the overt and intentional kinds of racism rather than the modern forms of racism that are more prevalent today.
MARTIN: Why do you think it is, though, that so many people have responded so strongly to this exchange? I mean, I've seen, you know, many people writing commentaries about this who don't normally weigh in on these kinds of issues to say, absolutely you can be racist if you have somebody - or a person of color, of a different race, working for you or even claims to be your friend. So, first of all, do you think that that's true? And secondly, why do you think it's pushing so many people's buttons? Why does it evoke the strong reaction on the other side?
PLUMMER: The answer to the first question about can you be racist and still have friends who cross racial lines, yes. When you look at surveys, most whites will say they have a friend of a different race. And they use that as a badge of honor. However, we know that when someone calls you a friend, it may not be that (laughter) you understand the same kind of friendship that you have. I had one focus group participant say to me, you know, I know that I'm about twelve people's good black friend, and I probably just sat next to them in high school one time.
MARTIN: I'm intrigued by what you said. You're saying that a majority of white people will say they have a friend of a different race, but you're saying that's not exactly true. How do you understand that disconnect? Is it that African-Americans and white people and Latinos, for example, mean something different?
PLUMMER: In our studies, when we look at friendship, we let people define - claim who they have as friends. But then we do things that look at - measure their depth of friendship and the level of contact. But then we have people whom - or have fantasy friends, which are really - they have little or no contact, no depth or intimacy. They may just know each other as - you know, that's the Pomeranian dog's mom.
And then we have people who we work with who are part of our group of friends that we may have shared experience with, but they're not necessarily - have the depth or the friendship. We have friends, though, and when those cross racial lines, and we do have some depth or intimacy, those are the kinds of friends that people are talking about that really could have the bench strength to talk about racially charged situations, even to have a conversation about the Cohen hearings and what happened.
MARTIN: That was Deborah Plummer, vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She is the author of "Some Of My Friends Are...: The Daunting Challenges And Untapped Benefits Of Cross-Racial Friendships."
Deborah Plummer, thanks so much for talking to us.
PLUMMER: Thank you, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.