You had to become an “honorary white.”

That was the status South Africa used to bestow upon black performers from the United States who visited the apartheid regime. The O’Jays, Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Eartha Kitt were among those who received that designation, allowing them access to hotels and restaurants from which black Africans were barred.

It was, as you might expect, a controversial thing. Or as Eddie Levert of the O’Jays later observed, “We’ve been apologizing ever since.”

While there is no official “honorary white” status in this country, American politics has evolved a rough analog. As lily-white conservatism has lurched deeper into a brazen racism and xenophobia reminiscent of the 1950s, black and brown people willing to use their color to give it moral cover have seen themselves eagerly embraced by those whose sins they abet.

It’s not quite access to “whites only” hotels and restaurants, but it is acceptance into white spaces otherwise closed and hostile to people like you. Sometimes, it even brings a kind of petty stardom in the murky world of right-wing bloggers, social media and cable news. Racist xenophobes get to feel that they’re not racist or xenophobic at all because, hey, “Diamond and Silk” agree with them.

But ultimately, the joke is always on you. In recent days, we’ve seen that lesson learned painfully and publicly by two men: a black Donald Trump voter named Kevin Martin and a Donald Trump friend of Puerto Rican heritage named Geraldo Rivera.

The former told CNN last week that when Trump told four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries, it “just came out of left field” and “hit a lot of us in the gut.” The latter, while loyally insisting Trump has “been treated unfairly,” conceded to The New York Times that, “As much as I have denied it and averted my eyes from it, this latest incident made it impossible.”

To which, the only appropriate response is: Wow. Just ... wow.

After the housing discrimination suits, the quote about black laziness, the persecution of the Central Park Five, now it’s suddenly “impossible” for Rivera to deny Trump’s bigotry? After the Mexican rapists crack, the smear against a Mexican-American judge, the Muslim ban, the “very fine people on both sides,” Martin thinks Trump’s latest rancid spew “came out of left field”?!

One can only conclude that honorary whiteness must be one powerful drug. Side effects include cultural amnesia and inability to process reality.

It’s not that people of color can’t or shouldn’t be conservative, as that term was once understood. But this modern iteration doesn’t care about small government or muscular diplomacy. Rather, it is working to normalize racism and enshrine xenophobia, and if you’re black or brown and still don’t realize that, well, again, wow.

The thing is, honorary whiteness has its limitations. Consider Barry Martin, an honorary white black dancer who toured South Africa in 1983 and was in a single-car accident while there. An ambulance picked up the white driver, but left Martin in the wreckage. A black motorist happened by and took him to a white hospital where he was refused admission. Eventually, Martin wound up in the black section of another hospital.

Somewhere in all that jostling, his injured spine was severed. Martin became a quadriplegic. He never walked, much less danced, again.

Take his story as an object lesson, you honorary whites of American politics: You are not special, only useful.

You’d be wise to learn the difference.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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(16) comments

hermit thrush

to airball55: i have neither put words in your mouth nor broadly painted trump voters as being racist. i have accurately described your own _actions_ as condoning some bad stuff. i continue to be sorry if that hurts your feelings, but it is what it is. i will be waiting for any factual claims you wish to bring up.

Airball55

What a crock. I see another writer who has an agenda. I see us all waiting for hope and change. I saw a previous administration do nothing to help inner city infrastructure. I see a broken 2 party system where both sides refuse to work with each other. I see a bunch a garble as usual from columns like this.

JohnMcElroy

I see a nation on the GO. I see the road to prosperity resulting from the tax cuts for corporations, I see America being great again with jobs, jobs, jobs for Americans. I see the national GDP rising above expectations. I see businesses and startups on the go and I see a president trying to even the trade betweeen China and America. I see a administration trying to stem the flow of illegals from our southeren border. I see a United States supreme court aid this president by releasing 2.5 billion to help finish the southern border barriers. I see our presidents diplomacy with Guatamala asking them to help slow asylum seekers from Central America. Why did Rep Cummings bash the workers on our southern borders? Those workers come from the homes all over America, people who would never abuse a child. Enough hate democrats, join us to secure our borders and allow only workers we can use to fill jobs across the nation.

GolfPro605

I see fiction.

Newsjunkie39a

I see a president who is a racist. I see a president who insults everyone who disagrees with him in the most personal terms. I see a president who has abused women, and bragged about it. I see a president with an overpowering ego, yet an ego so fragile he cannot stand the faintest word of criticism. I see a president who holds public events designed to massage his ego. I see a president who lies whenever the truth does not suit him. I see a president who cuddles up to foreign dictators, and honors their word over his own people's. I see a president who brags about making America great again, but who has preached hatred against minorities, and consciously divided us. I see a president who hates a free press. I see a president whose ignorance, poor judgment, and impulsiveness could easily bring calamity to our country.

hermit thrush

hallucinogens makes people see lots of things which aren't real. second quarter gdp growth was only 2.1%, and previous quarters were just revised down. business investment has actually become negative, totally exploding the notion that the tax cut has done any good (except for the rich). the failure to see things for how they really are instead of what we wish them to be -- this is one of the great problems of our time.

Airball55

Your last sentence I whole heartedly agree with. Not much else but the last sentence is exactly the problem. It is what happens when people can’t think and research for themselves and blindly follow a party or leader.

Scoot24

Stop watching and reading only liberal news sources. You'll find out it is somewhere in the middle. It's no worse than when Pres. Obama (I'll use his real name not a childish one like you like to do for the current president) was president but gets liberalized by the media.

hermit thrush

the truth is not always in the middle. it simply is what it is. but what's worse, hucksters know that many people go by the heuristic that the truth is in the middle, and that to distort reality. if you have any particular points of substance you'd like to discuss, then by all means try me.

hermit thrush

good column, and cheers to the wdt for running it.

Scoot24

Of course you do. It's supports your liberal views.

hermit thrush

if you have a substantive case to make against the column, then by all means do so. otherwise all that's happening here is a mindless expression of your own conservative biases.

Scoot24

Of course you do. The liberally edited ones always make you feel warm and fuzzy.

Airball55

Scoot24...I will save you some time. Mr hermit is a good person for sure. A supreme party loyalist however and on the opposite spectrum of the always trumpers who have the same problems with only believing party narratives and not the truth sometimes. And it’s all of their rights to believe whatever they want. It’s why we are great, always have been and always will be!

hermit thrush

"and not the truth sometimes." if you have a specific factual claim to dispute then please raise it. i think you will find that i can think very well for myself, thanks.

Airball55

Mr hermit...why would I ever ask for any truth that comes from someone who puts words in other’s mouths or makes judgments on others of whom he does not know? We can go down the road of truth starting way back with the beginning of the “collusion” case, the broad painting of all trump voters being racists...and on and on. We can then discuss fiscal theory as well. Your tactics are trumponian in nature. We shall see how this works next election. Did you hear the attack on the middle class last night at the debate? I actually saw some real problem solvers on that stage..but I would guess our support of certain people up there would be different.

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