WASHINGTON — As the child of former sharecroppers, Rep. 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 Wednesday, the uneasy truce that 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 Cohen. After Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., brought in a black political appointee of President Donald Trump’s in an effort to prove Trump is not racist, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., called it racist to “actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee.”
Meadows, red-faced and near tears, demanded that Tlaib’s words be “taken down” — struck from the record as a violation of House rules — and Cummings asked Tlaib to explain herself. She apologized. Then the questions began.
“Whose emotions do we put first?” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a close ally of 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 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 Cummings is and how he wants to run his committee. On Thursday, many of his colleagues — including 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 Cummings had called Meadows “one of my best friends,” and resurfaced several 2012 campaign videos showing 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 Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., 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,” 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 Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. "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. Meadows called the “birther” videos “old news” Thursday and said he had previously apologized. He also appeared to reconcile with 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.”
Meadows and Tlaib are political and cultural opposites. Meadows, 59, a well-to-do real estate developer, is chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s most ardent defenders on Capitol Hill.
Tlaib, 42, made headlines on her first day in office after she was captured on video using an expletive to describe 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 Thursday. 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 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, Virginia, has made Washington’s conversation about race deeply personal for 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 Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who was also present for the Tlaib-Meadows exchange. “It’s lived experience.”
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, a liberal organization that helped elect both Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez, described Tlaib as “one of a new generation of Democrats who is going to puncture the silence even when it’s uncomfortable.”
Meadows anticipated that Cohen, 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 Cohen and that “there was no way that she would work for an individual who was racist.”
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, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who is African-American, said it was “totally insulting” for Meadows to “prop up one member of our entire race.”
Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts who is black, asked Cohen whether it was possible for Trump to “have a black friend and still be racist,” to which he replied, “Yes.”
In fact, the only Democrats to call Meadows out were women of color. Men of color on the committee, such as Khanna and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, held their tongues.
While 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, 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.”
Ocasio-Cortez agreed, saying she felt Cummings was “correct in the procedure” and was “trying to do everything in his power to protect” Tlaib from being reprimanded. But, she added, women of color often face disparate treatment at work.
“At the end of the day,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “one person got an apology, and one person didn’t, and two people were hurt.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.