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 email@example.com.