Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Negro-Gate: Harry Reid Is No Trent Lott

If you have not yet heard:

WASHINGTON – The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate apologized on Saturday for comments he made about Barack Obama's race during the 2008 presidential bid and are quoted in a yet-to-be-released book about the campaign.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
of Nevada described in private then-Sen. Barack Obama as "light skinned" and "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Obama is the nation's first African-American president.

"I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments," Reid said in a statement released after the excerpts were first reported on the Web site of The Atlantic.

"I was a proud and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama during the campaign and have worked as hard as I can to advance President Obama's legislative agenda."
This is one of the most racist things I've ever heard and Harry Reid should resign from the United States senate immediately. Just kidding. I was just imagining what it would be like to be a partisan reactionary douchebag there for a second; could you imagine if I was really like that? *shudder* And yet many such Republicans are indeed tripping over their own feet in the rush to condemn Reid because finally someone who actually isn't a member of their party said something racist in public. And let's be clear here: if we're to analyze what Reid said about Obama in the context of every other statement we as an all too politically correct society have deemed racist, then this was certainly a racist comment.

That's not to say however that it wasn't true, and Reid was in fact giving Obama a compliment by stating that those previously mentioned attributes would work to Obama's advantage as he ran for president (his was also one of the first major endorsements Obama received from the Democratic establishment). Now personally I'm not entirely convinced that the specific skin tone of a black political candidate has an appreciable effect on their electability but it also wouldn't surprise me were it true. After slavery was officially abolished in the U.S. during the 19th century many light-skinned blacks and Mulattoes took advantage of their ability to "pass" as white for a time, and on a personal note when I was employed in downtown Oakland I worked with a guy named Mike whose last name I thought was Black. I eventually found out that all of the other black guys we saw every day called him "Black" because his skin was so dark. So one can't deny that we notice such differences as a multi-racial society and thus they must have some effect on elections, even if it's speculative or somewhat negligible.

Reid's comments about Obama's lack of a "Negro dialect" that he can turn on and off at will also hold truth. Let's face it, if Obama normally spoke like the average NBA star or hip hop artist he never would have been selected as the editor of the Harvard Law Review, much less elected president of the United States. But instead Obama is perceived as an intelligent well-educated man and his impressive public speaking skills are his strongest attribute as a successful politician. Another asset is his ability to act hip (or as hip as a nerd like Obama can manage) by speaking popular street slang, connecting him with voters who don't necessarily relate to his usual professorial speaking style. These are advantages that Reid was attempting to praise with his idiotic, ill-phrased comments.

And those comments were most definitely idiotic and ill-phrased, there's no doubt about that. Really, what experienced politician walks around saying the word "negro" in public in the year 2008? The fact that congress is almost completely composed of old white guys is an image that they're trying very hard to move away from, not call attention to. So now of course Republicans, never a party to pass up a chance to twist the rhetorical knife into their political opponents (although the Democrats are hardly much better most of the time), have begun the all too predictable calls for Reid to resign as the Senate majority leader with a pathetic display of faux moral outrage. The most popular avenue of attack thus far has been that of comparing Reid's remarks to those of former Republican Senator and majority leader Trent Lott about Republican Strom Thurmund at his 100th birthday celebration:
When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.
Now you're probably saying to yourself, "Hey self, those remarks don't really seem all that racist." And you'd be correct, if only Lott hadn't been saying them about a man who ran for the presidency on a platform of strict racial segregation. That's right, Lott was saying that he was proud to have voted for a man who's presidential stump speech included statements like, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches" and that if Thurmond had only won the presidency and been able to implement his racist vision of barring black people from white society America would have been better off as a result (since this was the late 1940's we'll forgive Thurmond's use of the word "negro" as merely a sign of the times). Lott was subsequently forced to resign as Senate majority leader as a result of these comments and rightly so, but I have to take exception with the current comparisons some Republicans are trying to draw between that incident and Senator Reid's moronic statements.

Reid wasn't trying to disparage black people with his remarks, he was merely trying to strategically handicap a political race by enumerating some of a candidate's positive electoral attributes (admittedly phrased in an extraordinarily stupid manner). This is hardly ethically equivalent to stating that one is proud to have voted for a segregationist and that a segregated America would be a better country. Add to that Lott's longstanding ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization established by former activists in the segregationist White Citizens' Councils that advocates white supremacy and white separatism, along with Lott's consistent grade of "F" on the NAACP's legislative report card and his remarks about Thurmond begin to provide a fairly accurate portrayal of the man's views on race relations.

Senator Reid, on the other hand, has consistently received a 100 percent rating from the NAACP and is well known for his decades-long efforts to integrate Las Vegas' casino industry. Now in the past I've stated my displeasure with Reid on numerous occasions (I consider him to be an ineffectual pussy of a Senate majority leader and somewhat of an annoying dork to boot) but it's obvious to any objective American that he's no racist and thus should not be forced to resign his seat over this incident. At worst, he's guilty of being an old white man who has trouble relating directly to the black community but his actions as a legislator rightfully outweigh any stupid remarks he might have made during the last election.

The real villains in this tale are the serial opportunist Republicans who wasted no time in quickly moving to exploit Reid's situation by attacking him with that same faux moral outrage I spoke of earlier. They've made it abundantly clear that they would rather stoke the flames of racial discord in America than use their elected positions to pass legislation like health care reform that would significantly benefit the economically disadvantaged in this country, a group disproportionately composed of minorities. This makes it fairly obvious that black America has some real problems with the Republican party and its current drift even further to the right of the political spectrum will do little to make those problems disappear.

Based on this track record, it's entirely possible that the Republicans really don't understand the difference between a terrible choice of words and pining for segregationism. This is no excuse for their despicable actions of course, and one could argue that it actually makes them appear even more disingenuous and out of touch with the rest of America, but at least it would be the truth. Although they seem to have a real problem when it comes to that, don't they?


KA said...

I absolutely agree...Reid's choice of words were inappropriate and definitely not in the realm of the correct word choice. HOWEVER, perhaps, what the "teachable moment" should be not if Reid is racist, but why in 2010 (or then 2008) are the two points he brought up still a concern in America?
On CNN's "Black in America", Soledad O'Brien discussed the dark skin/light skin with Michael Eric Dyson, who said, "Besides the choices we made, Everett and I are also examples of an ugly trait that persists in black communities: the ruin of color consciousness. I am a light-skinned brother; Everett is a deep chocolate black man. I am not suggesting that the mere difference in shade has led to his brutal circumstances and my rise. I am arguing, however, that the persistence of colorism -- a sometimes subtle hierarchy of social standing historically dictated in part by darkness or lightness of one's skin, measuring the proximity to, or distance from, the vaunted white ideal -- affected how he was viewed as a developing youth, impacting the view of what gifts he might possess while shaping the presence or absence of social opportunities open to him." (Source CNN, Black in America, 2008).
My point of sharing this...Reid was not being racist, he was saying something quite difficult to say, something that we as a society should be embarrassed about, and something that is quite real.
Regarding the "dialect" segment of Reid's quote, again, the question should be why do white Americans expect African-Americans to have a certain dialect? Is it a socially constructed reality? Is it the media?
My annoyance with Reid is not that just what he said is so inappropriate in word choice, it's that he did not stand up to the fact that these realities exist in America and we should discuss them, so that we can attempt to change them.

JBW said...

Thanks kelly, and I also agree with you that colorism and unfair assumptions as to a person's manner of speaking based on race are things we should be trying to move past as a society. I think that our collective air of political correctness and unwillingness to discuss such problems because of knee jerk reactionaries and racial opportunists hamper the efforts of those trying to legitimately advance this dialogue.

And on a personal note, I've noticed that black people and other minorities I've known are far less reluctant to address and discuss racial inequalities and problems than white people, although given the fragile and sensitive atmosphere we've constructed around these subjects I can hardly blame them for that (although I totally blame them for the popularity of ugly Christmas sweaters and mayonnaise).

Anonymous said...

I don't expect black folks to have a distinct accent when I speak with them, but I am not surprised when they do. I don't think that makes me a racist, but I could be wrong.

I grew up in Texas and the majority of black friends (I won't say African Americans because they won't), and borderline family, that I have had speak with accents that could be labeled in some way or another. Like I said, I don't necessarily expect the same accent from everyone I meet, but I think its existence is a definite reality in the south.

I heard comments made about Obama's lack of "negro dialect" all throughout the election... but most people referred to him as "well-spoken" instead.

Intrepid Californio said...

I tend to think that everyone gets too hung up on using the "racist tag". Recognizing the traits of different people-whether they be physical or social- isn't racism. Hating, discriminating, and oppressing people because of those traits is. But to the point if expressing one's observations in a tactful matter. I am not sure that in today's day and age it is possible. No matter how thought out your words are, chances are someone will take exception.

JBW said...

That's why I said that Reid's comments were racist by the measure of today's PC society, IC. As you and I have previously discussed, under that definition I think everyone is racist to a point.

Unlike many white people, I have no problem discussing race because I know I'm not a hater. Those who can't have an open and honest discussion are the ones we should be worrying about.