WASHINGTON — As the child of former sharecroppers, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland is no stranger to blunt conversations about race. But when a fiery freshman Democrat practically accused a conservative Republican of racism on Wednesday, the uneasy truce that Mr. Cummings brokered put him in the center of a raw debate over race and gender in a changing House.
The heated exchange came at the end of Wednesday’s explosive House Oversight Committee hearing featuring Michael D. Cohen. After Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, brought in a black political appointee of President Trump’s in an effort to prove Mr. Trump is not racist, Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, called it racist to “actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee.”
Mr. Meadows, red-faced and near tears, demanded that Ms. Tlaib’s words be “taken down” — struck from the record as a violation of House rules — and Mr. Cummings asked Ms. Tlaib to explain herself. She apologized. Then the questions began.
“Whose emotions do we put first?” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a close ally of Ms. Tlaib’s who is on the oversight panel and witnessed the encounter. “We had to apologize for him getting hurt feelings over her saying and calling out a racist practice,” but Ms. Tlaib was also “hurt, and no apology was furnished to her.”
The Root, a website that focuses on race, went further: “Cummings’ handling of Tlaib yesterday is part of a larger problem the Democratic Party has with this new class of women of color: Democrats want women of color in Congress, but they can’t seem to handle their truth-telling,” wrote Terrell Jermaine Starr. He added, “He messed up and needs to apologize to Tlaib nonetheless — publicly. Otherwise, Republicans will take Meadows’ cue and cry a river of white tears each time a woman of color dares to call them out on their racism.”
The episode underscored who Mr. Cummings is and how he wants to run his committee. On Thursday, many of his colleagues — including Ms. Ocasio-Cortez — came to his defense, saying he handled a difficult situation well by preventing an important and historic hearing from going off the rails.
But outside the Capitol, the reviews were less kind. Critics were furious that Mr. Cummings had called Mr. Meadows “one of my best friends,” and resurfaced several 2012 campaign videos showing Mr. Meadows saying he intended to send President Barack Obama “home to Kenya, or wherever it is.”
Beyond that contretemps, the Cohen hearing served to shine a national spotlight on a new generation of outspoken young Democrats, many of them women of color, who are forcing pointed conversations about race and abandoning the unwritten protocols of decorum in the way their elders — who often agree with them — have not.
“You have to bear witness, bear witness to the truth,” said Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and a civil rights icon, who applauded young women of color for getting into what he likes to call “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“This body is going to continue to change as more people of a diverse background come,” Mr. Lewis said. “America is changing. We all need to get on board.”
But a generational divide could be emerging, especially with some African-American elders who have been in the House for decades. “I think they certainly bring a different perspective in some ways,” said Representative Danny K. Davis, Democrat of Illinois. “I think the wording sometimes is a little different. The level of what might be called ‘professional civility’ may be a little different, but I think the individuals are expressing in many ways the same feelings and are saying the same things.”
For the House Republican Conference, 90 percent of whom are white and male, some uncomfortable moments are inevitable. Mr. Meadows called the “birther” videos “old news” on Thursday and said he had previously apologized. He also appeared to reconcile with Ms. Tlaib; the two shared a hug and a seemingly cordial talk on the House floor.
“She said she didn’t mean it yesterday, so there was no need to apologize,” he told reporters afterward. “I wanted her to know, and she wanted me to know, that our relationship is one that will hopefully provide real good results going forward.”
Mr. Meadows and Ms. Tlaib are political and cultural opposites. Mr. Meadows, 59, a well-to-do real estate developer, is the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and one of Mr. Trump’s most ardent defenders on Capitol Hill.
Ms. Tlaib, 42, made headlines on her first day in office after she was captured on video using an expletive to describe Mr. Trump as she spoke of her desire to impeach him. A lawyer and social justice advocate from Detroit, she is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress.
She did not respond to a request for an interview on Thursday. Mr. Cummings brushed aside questions. “I’m not going to talk about that,” he said. “I think we were able to resolve it. I think we ended up with civility.”
Congress, of course, has been grappling with issues of race for most of its existence, and certainly the debates during the civil rights era were pointed and passionate. But the rise of Mr. Trump, who has referred to a former black aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman, as “a dog” and declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacists’ march in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., has made Washington’s conversation about race deeply personal for Ms. Tlaib and other lawmakers of color.
“As representatives of communities that are on the margins of how the president defines his vision of America, I think they bring an urgency and an emotional depth to their rhetoric that is not just academic,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, who was also present for the Tlaib-Meadows exchange. “It’s lived experience.”
Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, a liberal organization that helped elect both Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, described Ms. Tlaib as “one of a new generation of Democrats who is going to puncture the silence even when it’s uncomfortable.”
Mr. Meadows anticipated that Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, would describe the president as racist, which is why he asked the Trump appointee, Lynne Patton of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to attend. When it was his turn to speak, he asked her to rise, and then he spoke for her, saying that she disagreed with Mr. Cohen and that “there was no way that she would work for an individual who was racist.”
Ms. Tlaib was incredulous: “The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.”
Another Michigan Democrat, Representative Brenda Lawrence, who is African-American, said it was “totally insulting” for Mr. Meadows to “prop up one member of our entire race.”
Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts who is black, asked Mr. Cohen whether it was possible for Mr. Trump to “have a black friend and still be racist,” to which he replied, “Yes.”
In fact, the only Democrats to call Mr. Meadows out were women of color. Men of color on the committee, such as Mr. Khanna and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, held their tongues.
While Mr. Cummings may have wanted to put the matter to rest, the exchange was reverberating inside and outside the Capitol.
“I think that he handled it in the way that made sense for him and the committee in that moment,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of Black PAC, which mobilizes black voters. “He is the chair of the committee, and a part of that role has to be to facilitate and mediate between members.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez agreed, saying she felt Mr. Cummings was “correct in the procedure” and was “trying to do everything in his power to protect” Ms. Tlaib from being reprimanded. But, she added, women of color often face disparate treatment at work.
“At the end of the day,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said, “one person got an apology and one person didn’t, and two people were hurt.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.
Source: Read Full Article