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Shawn Vestal: Newsmakers self-identify however they please

So: Patrick Rushing isn’t a racist. And Rachel Dolezal is black.

That’s how they identify, at least.

Rushing, the mayor of Airway Heights for as long as he can hold on, became infamous last week with his comments comparing the Obamas to monkeys and gorillas – comments that fit into a pattern of racially charged nonsense on his Facebook page. This includes calling for the president to be hanged for treason, claiming Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a bigoted preoccupation with white victims of black criminals. He now says Facebook is a tool of a devil, but the only tool in this story is Rushing.

Who assures us he is not a racist.

“If I do resign,” he has said, “that’s admitting I’m a racist and I’m not.”

Dolezal, of course, was outed by her parents as a white woman, after years of enacting a pageantry of racial identity in which she claimed – sometimes directly and sometimes by implication and appearance – to be black, and used that claim to mislead her way into positions of leadership that she has now tarnished. She seems oblivious to this, telling Vanity Fair in a recent interview that she doesn’t believe she deceived anyone, that she may write a book, and that she finds it hard to deal with the fact that the person who succeeded her at the NAACP “doesn’t trust me as much now or something.”

“It’s taken my entire life to negotiate how to identify, and I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of studying,” she said, adding, “I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black, and there’s a difference in those terms.”

At this point, Dolezal’s self-identification may be beside the point. So long as she’s not leading the local chapter of NAACP and heading the citizens panel on police oversight, she can be who she wants to be. Her flameout was spectacular in its way – from the outrageousness of her racial passing to the calm oblivion she exhibited on national television – but hers is a unique case, not an object lesson. When the shootings in Charleston occurred, it was quickly put into its place as a sideshow in a larger national tragedy. The Dolezal revelations weren’t telling us something about race and identity in America so much as they were telling us something about her.

The Rushing brouhaha is different, one that does tell us something about race and identity in America, circa 2015, and it is this: Nobody’s a racist. Especially the people who most seem like they are.

Donald Sterling, who told his girlfriend not to bring black people to the games of the NBA team he owned? “I am not a racist,” he insisted.

Ted Nugent, whose litany of racist blather includes calling Obama a “subhuman mongrel”? “I am not a racist.”

The Orange County Republican official who forwarded a photo of Obama as a chimp baby with chimp parents? “I am not a racist.”

The Nebraska school board member who ran a blog calling Obama a “half-breed”? “I am not a racist.”

The Mississippi lawmaker who said “all the blacks are getting food stamps”? “I am not a racist.”

The Coeur d’Alene school board member who compared Obama to an assault rifle, because he’s black and scary? Not a racist.

Nobody’s a racist. It’s uncanny. Last week, at a never-ending City Council meeting, the local chorus of hysterical anti-immigrant voices sang once again, insisting all the while that they are not racist. One woman played the Trump card: She isn’t racist, she said, because she has “many colored friends.”

Rushing also says he’s not a racist. It is probably less important to argue over the label than to consider his remarks, and the lack of character in their content.

On Facebook, he posted a status calling Michelle Obama “gorilla face” and Barack Obama “monkey man.” It’s hard to think of many things – short of a Klan hood or the N-word – that are more obviously anti-black than a monkey comparison, and yet Rushing insists it has nothing to do with race.

The Inlander’s Daniel Walters scoured Rushing’s Facebook page and identified scads of other posts of questionable taste. Posts emphasizing the murder of white people by black people. Jokes about the president being born in Kenya. Outlandish conspiracy theories. Ridiculous generalizations about Muslims. A bellicose insistence that the true victims of racism are white people.

Oh, yeah – and posts about his Christian faith.

People can identify themselves however they want. Perhaps Dolezal, having grown up white, really “is” black in some way that doesn’t quite square with the way that most of us arrive at that determination. And perhaps Rushing really isn’t a racist – just an American who is free, as he says, to say stupid things. Very, very stupid things.

That’s one identification, at least, that we can all agree with.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.