The Stirring Case of Mary Elizabeth Taylor

After obediently sticking to the script that the Republican Party had her play for more than a decade, Mary Elizabeth Taylor’s decision to quit may prove historically significant.
Mary Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Elizabeth Taylor news, Republican Party, Republicans, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, African American, black Americans, US politics, Peter Isackson

A protester in Washington, DC on 31/5/2020 © Johnny Silvercloud / Shutterstock

Although the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, Mary Elizabeth Taylor, was not a high-profile member of the Trump administration, her resignation last week gathered the attention of the media due to the reasons she cited. It was all about what one of the rare black remaining members of the administration was willing to call US President Donald Trump’s stand with regard to racial injustice.


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Business Insider quotes Taylor’s explanation of her move: “Moments of upheaval can change you, shift the trajectory of your life, and mold your character. The President’s comments and actions surrounding racial injustice and Black Americans cut sharply against my core values and convictions.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Trajectory:

The path followed by a flying object that has no control over its movement or by human beings who in their professional careers live with the illusion of controlling their movement

Contextual Note

As a native of Washington from an early age, Taylor was observant enough to detect the opportunities an ambitious black youngster may have for a career in politics. The Republican side offered an especially attractive opportunity because of their need for minority faces to attenuate the otherwise justified perception of being the party of white privilege. After an internship at Koch Industries during her studies at Bryn Mawr College, Taylor was ideologically equipped for a future in the Republican Party.

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In 2017, during the hearings to confirm Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, the news website Heavy.com noticed that “Taylor has become a social media star, grabbing the spotlight from the judge.” Unsure of her role in the campaign, since “she was not a lead staffer,” Daniel S. Levine, who wrote the article, speculated that she might be there mainly for visual effect. “She’s been more visible than Gorsuch’s wife Louise Gorsuch and it’s not clear why she has been given such a prominent seat.”

NEWSONE, a news website based in the DC area that targets the African American community, hinted at its own conclusions about Taylor’s stardom when it asked the question: “Who’s the Gorgeous Black Woman Sitting Behind Neil Gorsuch?” It answered its own question with this suggestive remark: “Why she’s been given such a prominent role when Heavy.com reports she’s not a lead staffer on Gorsuch’s nomination team … well, we’ll leave that to you.” 

Could she be the Republicans’ Aunt Jemima? Both Taylor and Jemima appear to be stepping away from their assigned roles at the same moment of history, though in Jemima’s case it doesn’t appear to be voluntary.

Historical Note

Mary Elizabeth Taylor’s resignation may be a significant sign that we have entered into a stage of history that will be remembered more as a moment of rupture than transition. Earlier this month, before her resignation, Taylor expressed her emotion in a message to her team. “Every time we witness these heinous, murderous events, we are reminded that our country’s wounds run deep and remain untreated,” she wrote.

From this, it would appear that Taylor’s personal trajectory has been eclipsed by something of greater significance: the trajectory of the nation’s history. Susan Rice, one of the leading prospects to run alongside the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the November election, complained that Taylor should have reacted much sooner, considering it shameful on her part to accompany Donald Trump, a manifest racist, for three and a half years.

But Rice accompanied Barack Obama for eight years. Obama cannot, of course, be called a racist, but, among other policies that are consistent with an established system of white supremacy, he did more than any president to militarize the police and cannot have ignored that such a policy would specifically target black communities.

The aggressive policing of the black population in America began in the era of slavery. Slave patrols — the famous militias facilitated by the Second Amendment — eventually evolved into modern police forces. Though the black population achieved legal equality following the Civil War, with varying degrees of subtlety, laws and law enforcement procedures were specifically designed right up to the present to marginalize, hobble and control the majority of urban blacks.

Following the civil rights movement in the 1960s, legislators managed to change some of the laws but few of the practices. President Lyndon Johnson’s great reforms had the principal effect of opening up a small avenue for “deserving” African Americans toward membership in an elite club, potentially with all of the same privileges as the most powerful white oligarchs.

In the 1990s, the New Democrats led by Bill Clinton — the “first black president” as Toni Morrison awkwardly called him — helped to invent what could be called the “New Multiracial Elite” that enabled Obama to become president (overtaking Clinton’s own wife). This newly designed club of media stars elevated Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and an impressive cast of “successful African Americans” in the media, entertainment, sports and politics to the parliament of wealthy sages who are not just admired but adulated. Unlike Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Sugar Ray Robinson, appreciated for their skill, the new black elite had the right to speak out in the media on public issues. 

The difference between the two eras is telling, but it has had little impact for ordinary black Americans. In New York in 1938, Billie Holiday wasn’t allowed to use the Lincoln Hotel’s main entrance and had to walk through the kitchen and access the service elevator to get to the stage on which she was the featured singer. During a cigarette break in August 1959, Miles Davis was brutally beaten by four police officers who accused him of loitering outside the door of the jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village where his band was featured. There is no door that will not automatically open today if Beyoncé so much as approaches it.

Taylor’s trajectory through the Republican Party — where she did the bidding of Mitch McConnell, Neil Gorsuch, Mike Pompeo and Trump himself — gave her a ticket to the New Multiracial Elite. It should be noted that not only blacks but also the vast majority of white people are excluded from the club. In that sense, there is a principle of equality at work. Just as commercial success can earn members of the British working class a knighthood or even a peerage, the descendants of slaves can now buy their way into the American elite or, after meritorious service, simply be co-opted by it.

For that very reason, Rice’s judgment is eminently unfair. Rice is a confirmed member of the elite. Taylor’s choice to renounce the current key to her membership in the club required courage and sacrifice. To the extent that it shows a successful black woman can be swayed by the terrible lessons of her people’s history more than by the promise of a career path laid out for her by the elite, she deserves our admiration.

Cynics may say that at the very moment of Trump’s plunge in the polls and the increasing likelihood that he will lose his bid for re-election, any black person associated with him would be wise to shift their own trajectory, if only to be in a position to readjust their trajectory after his fall. 

In today’s competitive consumer society, all decisions are about branding. The relatives of the actresses chosen in the past as the image of Aunt Jemima have expressed the concern that if Quaker Oats abandons the brand, “their family history will be erased.” They are indignant that their family trajectory is being threatened by white marketing strategists. Is that a cause worth protesting about? The alleged family of one Aunt Jemima stand-in “filed a $3 billion lawsuit against Quaker Oats in 2014.” 

In the coming months, the American public will learn more about the ultimate fate or the radical makeover of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. A few may be paying attention to the more interesting case of Mary Elizabeth Taylor.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]

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