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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Neo-Nazis make even less sense with Leo Felton
Boston Herald, June 30, 2001

Whatever you say about Leo V. Felton, the would-be terrorist being held on a plot to blow up African-American and Jewish edifices in New England, give him credit for finally cracking the color bar of the Aryan brotherhood.

That's because Felton, whose body is covered in neo-Nazi tattoos and who for much of his 30 years has been involved in racist activities, including violent hate-crime beatings of people of color, is black.

As mind-boggling as that fact is, it isn't much tempered by the clarification that technically speaking, he is only half-black as the child of a white mother and an African-American father.

One reason that matters little is that by almost every definition of race in America - most notoriously, the one-drop-of-black-blood rule that permitted slaveholders to keep their own children in bondage - 50 percent black has meant 100 percent.

In other words, if Leo V. Felton isn't quite the Jackie Robinson of the white supremacist movement, he's at least its Tiger Woods.

Like Woods and many other multiracial Americans, Felton apparently doesn't consider himself black, though for completely different reasons.

Reportedly, Felton's identity crisis (or self-hate, take your pick) stems from a bad relationship with his dad. Woods, whose closeness to his father is the stuff of sportswriters' legends, has said he prefers to honor all parts of his black, Thai and Caucasian heritage by referring to himself as "Cablasian."

That sort of choose-your-own definition of race has gained currency in recent years, especially since the overturning of antebellum race laws in deference to more enlightened and scientific definitions of race as a social construct, not a biological one.

As the child of an interracial African-American and Jewish couple, I can certainly appreciate the push toward self-identification and understand it as a legit and even healthy activity for anyone trying to get in touch with long-lost ancestors of many different hues.

But regardless of how we define ourselves, we have little control over how others perceive us.

That certainly was apparent in Woods' case when after winning his first Masters Tournament, competitor Fuzzy Zoeller chose the occasion to make a crack about Woods and fried chicken.

Somehow, Thai food jokes didn't occur to him.

Likewise, in my own experience I have met some folks who clearly see me as black and others hoping to converse with me in Urdu.

Though it's hard to tell exactly what Felton looks like through the tattoos, his complexion was unambiguous enough for at least one neighbor to respond to a Herald reporter inquiring about him, "You mean the black guy?"

Didn't Felton's swastika-saluting comrades at least wonder what he was?

And unless I misunderstood it somehow, isn't race-mixing a cardinal sin in the minds of white supremacists?

That certainly must have crossed the mind of Felton's girlfriend and alleged bomb-plot co-conspirator Erica Chase.

If Felton's racist colleagues didn't know what he was, he certainly pulled the white sheets over their eyes.

And if they did know, then their actions and antics are even more pointless than we imagined.

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