WASHINGTON • Ms Kara Young, a biracial model who dated Mr Donald Trump for two years before he married another model named Ms Melania Knauss, remembers clearly bringing up her race with the real estate tycoon early in their relationship. As with so many issues, he steered the conversation to celebrity.
"I didn't hide my race from Donald Trump. He knew," Ms Young said in a rare interview.
"He would say, 'You are like Derek Jeter.' And I would say, 'Exactly.'"
"I never heard him say a disparaging comment towards any race of people," she said. Mr Jeter, a former US baseball star, is biracial.
The furore Mr Trump has created with his equivocation over the violence at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, has refocused attention on his complex relationship with matters of race.
Long before his political career, he had courted racial controversy, calling for the death penalty for five black and Latino teens wrongly convicted of a rape in Central Park, settling a Justice Department suit that charged the family business with housing discrimination and falsely accusing the nation's first black president of being born in Kenya.
Beyond dating a biracial model, he made outsize efforts to hang out with African-American celebrities: Boxing promoter Don King, hip-hop impresarios Kanye West, Russell Simmons and Sean Combs, and the likes of Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Michael Jackson.
But more than ever, the question is being asked: Is Mr Trump racist? The few African-Americans in his inner circle say "no" emphatically.
Most privately describe him as a 71-year-old man with fixed views and a cloistered history, raised in a heavily white enclave in Queens, who came of age and built a tower in the Manhattan sky when New York City was roiling with racial strife.
"Just because you are a nationalist and you are white doesn't make you a white nationalist," said Ms Katrina Pierson, an African-American who was a spokesman for Mr Trump's presidential campaign.
Dr Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the only African-American in Mr Trump's Cabinet, said the controversy over Mr Trump' s Charlottesville comments were "being blown out of proportion".
Critics see a man who has viewed African-Americans as tools for his advancement. The Democratic National Committee on Thursday distributed a litany of past offences, under the headline "Trump's Very Long History of Racism".
"There was never any engagement that would be mutually beneficial," said Reverend Al Sharpton, with whom Mr Trump was friendly at various points.
"He has made a deliberate choice to not be inclusive and to be racially exclusive," he said. "He has nobody black at all in his inner circle."
Former Trump Organisation executive Abe Wallach said he is colourblind in keeping people at bay.
"Forget black friends - he doesn't have any friends," said Mr Wallach, who left on poor terms with Mr Trump after a history of credit card theft. "He is actually a lonely man."
Mr Trump does have a small handful of close friends, mostly people he has done business with.
Ms Young, when asked if she thought Mr Trump was racist or supported white supremacist ideals, said: "That was not my experience."
She dated him nearly 20 years ago, but Ms Young, whose mother is black and whose father is white, recalled a man with limited understanding of other cultures. He did not talk much about race or racial history, she said, but had a curious racial awareness and a propensity for stereotypes.