Solid Gold Token

With a good-looking black person and a little Photoshop derring-do, almost any American college or political campaign can look as diverse as a Benetton ad. Dexter Roundtree, America’s most-photographed token, is getting rich as a result.

Image: Jake Ginsky

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The following are actual news items:

  • On Sept. 20, the University of Wisconsin admits to doctoring a brochure photo by inserting an image of a black student in a crowd of white football fans, after searching in vain for a real photo with a black student in it.

  • On Sept. 29, the University of Idaho says it removed a picture from its Internet site in which the heads of two white students had been replaced with those of two minority students, one of whom was black.

  • That same day, Rep. Martin Frost, D-Tex., is blasted for using a stock photo of two African-American children in a campaign flier. “He went out and bought himself some Negroes,” said a spokesman for Frost’s opponent, adding that he saw the same photo in a picture frame at Wal-Mart.

Our curiosity piqued by these coincidences, we at the MoJo Wire set out to determine just how common this “cut-and-paste” tokenism really is.

What we found is astounding. Not only do an untold number of US organizations doctor photographs to include African Americans, but in most of those cases, the black person in the photo is the exact same guy.

Working on a hunch, we paged through the yearbooks of more than 30 US universities, all of which have been practicing de facto racial exclusion for decades. To our surprise, we noticed an oddly familiar photo reappearing throughout our search. Either the same black man had attended 19 separate schools in the same four-year period — wearing the same “Bel Biv Devoe” T-shirt for each senior picture — or something was up.

Citing a number of “public records” laws that may or may not exist, we pressured the schools to identify the ubiquitous mystery man. His real name: Dexter Roundtree.

Roundtree, as you might guess, never attended any of those schools. They were just a few of his ever-expanding list of “clients.” Roundtree has made a fortune lending his image to those in a pinch for a black face.

“I’ll make Denny’s look like the goddamn Freedom Train if you give me the chance,” boasted Roundtree, who granted us an interview from his mansion in Greenwich, Conn. “I’ll turn Jesse Helms into Harriet Tubman.”

Business began booming for Roundtree in 1996, when a prankster told drug czar Barry McCaffrey that melanin (the pigment that deepens skin color) was a party drug for white kids. The ensuing legislation outlawing melanin made virtually every African American a controlled substance. That year, millions of blacks were either arrested or fled the country (resulting in the Indigo Girls’ controversial sweep of the Soul Train Awards). Roundtree, meanwhile, caught a stroke of luck.

“The prisons were full, so they released me on the condition that I take a urine test for melanin every five months,” Roundtree said. After just four months, the law was repealed, but it left Roundtree with more work than he could ask for.

Just how much work? In an exhaustive search of political campaign posters, bank-loan brochures, and “Employee of the Month” plaques from Fortune 500 companies, we found his affable mug no fewer than 6,500 times.

~

In the past month alone, Roundtree has appeared as an oil company executive, a Georgia prison guard, a pizza chain manager (twice), a death penalty advocate, an insurance-claims rep, a board member for a Japanese car company, a currator for the Dixieland Historical Society, a standardized test administrator, a vegan food store owner, a Utah resident, a visitor to countless national parks, a Jew, a Texas prosecutor (seven times), a hockey fan, a South Carolina confederate flag defender, and an editor of Town & Country magazine.

Perhaps Roundtree’s crowning glory came at this year’s Republican National Convention, where he says he had to be “50 places at once.”

But even Roundtree admits he has missed some golden opportunities. Earlier this year, he considered an offer to pose as Pat Buchanan’s running mate. “I toyed with the idea, but then I thought, ‘No way, only a crazy person would try this,'” said Roundtree. “Turns out they found Ezola Foster two days later.”

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REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

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