Allegations of blackface and “concerning” statements on race have been added to the fray among Lawrence City Commission candidates.
City Commission candidate Bassem Chahine said that candidate Christian Lyche should publicly account for statements he made in the past that dismissed the effects of racial bias and discrimination.
“For me, it’s all about safety and what’s going on in the Trump era,” Chahine said. “A lot of people feel unsafe. Seeing rumors about him coming out, with no explanation or action being taken by him, is very concerning.”
Lyche said rumors that he's worn blackface are false, and that his past statements are being misrepresented. Screenshots of the conversation — which took place over Facebook messages — have been circulating on social media since Lyche announced his candidacy earlier this month. In the conversation, Lyche told another high school student that racism is not a barrier. Among other comments, he said that housing discrimination no longer exists and that employer policies on hairstyles such as cornrows are a preference and “not a race thing.”
In screenshots of the conversation, Lyche suggested black people can change their hair and names or find other places to work.
“Work for another black person then,” Lyche wrote at the time. “Or work for the millions of white people that don’t care about your name. Yes one in a million people are racists. It exists. Not a real barrier though. Capitalism discriminated against NOBODY.”
Lyche told the Journal-World this week that the conversation occurred about a year and half ago during the presidential campaign season. Lyche, now 19 and a University of Kansas student, said the things he said in that conversation “don’t really represent my views anymore.”
Still, Lyche said the statements weren’t meant to be discriminatory.
“I think it was just that I wasn’t privy to how much it existed in real life,” Lyche said. “But again, nothing that I said was discriminatory. It wasn’t meant that way, and even if you read it, I don’t think there’s any way a normal person can take from it that I am being like that.”
Chahine said the comments are hurtful and resonated personally.
“My name is Bassem Mohammed Bassam Chahine, and I am not going to change my name and image in order to get people's votes,” Chahine said. “I’m proud to be an Arab-American.”
Chahine recently responded with a public post on his Facebook page. The post, in part, paraphrased Lyche’s statements as “if minorities want to get jobs then they should transform themselves to be as white as possible.”
Lyche said that Chahine “just made up quotes to smear me,” and he encouraged people to actually talk to people who know him.
Lyche said the controversy about whether he dressed in blackface is also off-base. The alleged picture of him in blackface is him at the age of nine in a Halloween mask, he said, as part of what he described as a “hippy grandma” costume. He is wearing a tie-dyed shirt and peace pendant, and the mask is reddish-purple with red lips and a black curly-haired wig.
Lyche said that calling the mask blackface is “absolute nonsense.” He said that a narrative is being pushed that he is bigoted, and they “took anything they could get.”
“I have never worn blackface in my life,” Lyche said. “Up until last week I didn’t even know what blackface was.”
In the comment made on his Facebook page, Chahine also referred to the allegations of Lyche wearing blackface. Chahine made reference to Lyche's controversial Facebook posts and then said: "This, in addition to a posting of a picture of himself in blackface on his public profile, are enough to show that there may be something disturbing going on with this young man."
But at no point in the post did Chahine acknowledge that the photo was of Lyche as a child, and that the photo does appear to be of a Halloween mask. When Chahine was asked by the Journal-World whether he felt it was important to include that context as part of his allegations, Chahine only said he'd gotten a lot of messages from people about the masked picture and Lyche's conversation, and said he felt he had to provide his reaction.
“In the end, it was a day where I got a lot of messages about this exact topic,” Chahine said.
There were two other photos that also appeared of young men with black shoe polish or paint on their bodies and faces at a football game. Some social media users said Lyche was one of those in the picture, but he said that was false.
In another part of the screenshotted conversation, Lyche said everyone faces bias, noting “there are thousands of sexist feminists that wouldn’t hire me because I’m a republican white man.”
“Every race on the planet had some kind of bias," Lyche wrote at the time. "It doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it. Everyone has a different background. That doesn’t mean you need to exploit it for sympathy.”
Looking at that statement again, Lyche said that since going to college and meeting more people, he’s become more aware.
“I think at the time, I didn’t realize how big of an issue it was,” Lyche said. “And so I think I was on the side of minimizing it. I’ve always just been told, ‘you work hard, you do what you can, you make a living.' And again, that’s not really as simple as it is when you get out there.”
Chahine said he thinks Lyche needs to do more to address the situation, such as reaching out to groups such as the NAACP or Black Lives Matter.
“It’s still concerning,” Chahine said. “I see through action and not through words, and I haven’t seen anything from him.”
Lyche has also traded allegations of wrongdoing with incumbent candidate Matthew Herbert. The terms of commissioners Lisa Larsen, Mike Amyx and Herbert are expiring this year. The other candidates are: Larsen, Bassem Chahine, Dustin Stumblingbear, Jennifer Ananda, Ken Easthouse and Mike Anderson.
The filing deadline for the City Commission race was June 1. An Aug. 1 primary will narrow the field to six candidates.