The Whitest Black Man in America

There’s a wonderfully surreal little piece of video on CSPAN’s website. (Top of two links, realplayer only) Mychal Massie, an African-American columnist for conservative website, was scheduled to appear on CSPAN to respond to NAACP director Kweisi Mfume’s observation that some black conservative organizations have strong backing and financial support from white republicans. The Washington Times quotes Mr. Mfume, in an address to the organization’s annual gathering, as saying: “When the ultraconservative right-wing attacker has run out of attack strategy, he goes and gets someone that looks like you and me to continue the attacks…”

Mr. Massie’s appearance was organized by Project 21, which brands itself “The Conservative African-American Network”. P21, a project of the “conservative, free-market foundation” National Center for Public Policy Research, which organized the network to help locate and publicize the views of black conservatives. They’ve been very effective at getting press coverage… at least, on Fox News Channel, where Project 21 commentator Kevin Marks recently explained President Bush’s refusal to speak at the NAACP conference:

“[I]t would be like asking a Jewish rabbi to go down to a Ku Klux Klan skinhead convention.”

Alas, Mr. Massie caught a flat, so we couldn’t find out whether he, too, felt the head of the nation’s largest civil rights organization was a KKK skinhead. So Project 21’s executive director David Almasi filled in. Almasi is also the executive director of the NCPPR, a frequent commentator an racial issues and coauthor of a Contra-apologist history of Nicaragua. He’s the author of the last three policy papers on Project 21’s website, including an explanation of why most NASCAR drivers are white.

Given his stature and frequent appearances on the behalf of black conservatives, you’d expect Mr. Almasi to be an African-American. He’s not.

CSPAN’s Robb Harlston – himself black – seemed a little flustered when he began interviewing the decidedly caucasian Mr. Almasi.

Harlston: “Um…a program for conservative African Americans. You’re not African American.”

Almasi: “I’m white.”

Almasi went on to explain that he’d tried to find another speaker, but that he was the only one who could make it, and therefore, he’d be speaking as “…the way some of my friends describe my job: the whitest black man in America.”

So here’s the thing. I’m a white guy who spends most of his time working on African issues. I went to Ghana for the first time as the whitest African drummer in Western Massachusetts. I sometimes get invited to international development conferences to provide “an African perspective”, an experience that always makes me deeply uncomfortable, and which I’ve been known to diffuse by saying, “You can tell how hard the organizers worked to get a diverse crowd on stage because I’m your African representative.” And I’m profoundly flattered when friends in Accra, appreciate that I know a few phrases of Twi or my alumni card from the University of Ghana and announce: “You’re a Ghanaian!”

But I’m not a Ghanaian. I’m a wealthy white American. And if I ever presumed to speak “from an African perspective”, rather than from my observations as a white dude working in Africa, I would hope the crowd would boo me off the stage. And Almasi tried hard to make that distinction himself, spending the first minutes of his interview (before declaring himself a black man) explaining that he worked for the 300+ African-American conservatives who volunteered for Project 21.

I’d be lying if I said that liberal development agencies didn’t do this as well. We worked hard at Geekcorps to ensure we could direct interviewers to articulate, quoteable African partners who’d had good experiences working with us.

But I can’t imagine a circumstance in which we would have put a white Republican in front of a camera to explain that white Republicans weren’t actually running black conservative organizations.

And then I realized: it didn’t matter. A couple thousand people, at most, would watch the CSPAN segment (not a chance I would have seen it, unless I’d read Joshua Holland’s excellent piece, “Blackwashing”, which in turn I wouldn’t have seen unless I ingested blogs alongside newspapers as part of my daily media diet.) Hundreds of thousands of people will see black conservatives at the Republican convention, at pro-Bush rallies, on Fox News. All of those people will be there because they support conservative causes, but some will have been carefully stage-managed into place by organizations like Project 21, who realize that it’s more important to convince the right that they’re not all white than it is to convince African-Americans that Bush has their best interests at heart.

Stage managing works most of the time in a world where we see better than we read. It’s only at moments of extreme incongruity like this, where the seams show, that we realize how much work goes into ensuring we see precisely what one group or another wants us to see.

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