The Fire and Jemele Hill

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My childhood friend tells a story. Her dad was having coffee with his buddies, down at the diner in south side, when one of them glanced out the smudged plate glass and yelled, “Get a fire extinguisher! Hey Donny, your truck’s on fire.”

Sure enough, small flames curled across the truck’s back window, the window draped with Donny’s now-burning Confederate Flag.

A cook ran out with an extinguisher to douse the flames and, while the flag was a total loss, lucky for Donny not much harm was done to his truck. But he was hoppin’ mad. Some n****r did this, he kept yelling, and he was gonna call the police, by God, and file a report!

Until, as my friend tells it, already laughing, the police car rolled up and two black cops got out. “Dad’s buddies gave him guff about that one for years,” she says.

How many of us have heard stories like this? The my-dad/uncle/grandpa-is-just-a-sweet-old-bumbling-southerner stories that everybody laughs at and nobody calls out, because hey, old Donny’s set in his ways. But of course he’s no racist.

The president has his ways, too, and nobody wants to call him out, even as he doubles-down with his stance on racism in this country, and Charlottesville.

On a Sep. 15 trip to Florida, where he was to spend the day meeting with victims of Hurricane Irma and surveying the mass devastation, the president went back to talking about Charlottesville, where a woman was killed by a white supremacist.

“If you look at what’s going on there,” the president said, “you know, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also. Now because of what’s happened since then, with Antifa, you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville — a lot of people are saying — in fact, a lot of people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump might have a point.”

The president does not only have a problem with calling out hate groups, he has a problem admitting that he was wrong about Charlottesville, and so he continues, a good month later, to scramble in justifying his original position.

A position that is, unarguably, wrong.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for the firing of ESPN’s Jemele Hill, a black sports anchor who posted on her personal Twitter account, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”

Ms. Hill was publicly shamed and reprimanded by ESPN. She was forced to issue an apology. But that was not, it seems, enough for the White House, with the president tweeting, “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!

And from behind her podium with the presidential seal, Ms. Sanders piled on—“That’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense.”—calling for the firing of Ms. Hill, a private citizen.

As misfortune would have it, another prominent woman also made headlines within hours of Ms. Hill for calling out the president. In her answer to a question about white supremacists in Charlottesville, blonde, ivory-skinned, beauty contestant Miss Texas said without pause, “I think that the white supremacist issue was very obvious, that it was a terrorist attack and I think that President Donald Trump should have made a statement earlier, addressing the fact and in making sure all Americans feel safe in this country. That is the number one issue right now.”

The audience cheered Miss Texas. You go girl! One headline read, “Miss Texas blasts Donald Trump, wins fans everywhere.”

Funny. Unlike with Ms. Hill, no one called for the firing of Miss Texas. No one requested an apology. Not even the president’s press secretary, or the president himself.

We can go along, like we do, pretending the president is just a sweet old 71 year-old, set in his ways. We can fly our Confederate Flags and pretend they are about “southern pride” and not about intimidation and supremacy, about showing who owns this country, who gets fired, and who does not.

Or we can start calling it like we see it.

Ms. Hill, like all Americans, has the First Amendment right to speak her mind, to call out the president when he continues to insist there are “pretty bad dudes” on both sides.

And maybe, like that offensive flag flying in the back window of Donny’s truck, it’s time we stop waiting for the fire by laughing it off.

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