Monday, January 11, 2010

Poor, Sad Harry Reid

It appears that Mr. Reid, Democratic Senate Majority Leader, really stepped in it when he told an author on the record that Obama could win the Presidency because he was "light skinned" and didn't speak with a "Negro dialect" unless he wanted to. The Republicans, digging up the corpse of Trent Lott from 2002, have been screaming for Reid's immediate resignation and/or ouster. It's only fair, they say. Trent was run out of town for saying less. If Reid isn't ousted, it proves there is a double standard! Reid's just shown he's a big ol' racist, and we can't have that!

First, I think Harry Reid's comments were impolitic, and his use of "Negro dialect" was idiotic. It's 2009, Harry; "Negro" as a term has long fallen from the American lexicon. It's not nearly as toxic as "n*gger", but it's awfully close. FYI, we also no longer use the word "colored" to describe people of African American descent.

Second, who in the Democratic race didn't wonder if a black man or a woman could be elected in 2008? We knew we stood an excellent chance with the disaster that was the Bush presidency, but no one was sure how the general election would go. There were people who didn't think Hillary could be seen as "tough enough" in an era of terrorism. Others thought she was "too hard". I'll never forget the night of the JJ Dinner in Atlanta on the day that Edwards ended his campaign when I heard *many* stalwart party members swear, "Well, I know one thing, I'll never vote for that fucking bitch!" (emphasis NOT mine) In my mind, that answered the question of which was stronger in Georgia: racism or sexism. Turns out, having a penis was more important than being white, at least when voting for President of the United States. I estimate that about 95% of Edwards' vote in Georgia went straight to Obama.

My point is that everyone was speculating about the role of race and gender in the 2008 election! Many black folks wouldn't give Obama a second look until he proved he could get white folks in Iowa to vote for him. To have a quote from Reid during that primary remarking on the strengths of being biracial or "light skinned" in presidential politics is not racist. It was a fact. In Georgia, we were forced to attempt overcoming racism in some of our voters by urging them to for Obama's "white half". That was a disgusting argument to be forced to make to voters who normally voted Democratic, but it was one we used. Whatever would earn their vote for Obama was what we'd use. If a racist has to comfort himself by voting for Obama's "white half", then so be it; at least he voted for Obama.

As for his speaking style, Obama's oratorical skills have been noted since he came on the national scene in 2004. Even Biden got in trouble during the primary by saying Obama was "well spoken" and "clean". I never did understand the "clean" part because I haven't found that African Americans are dirty unless they just got off a construction site where EVERYONE is filthy. If Obama had not been the articulate candidate he was and instead spoke in either Ebonics or another street vernacular favored by today's hard-core rap artists...would he have stood a chance? I'd love to hear a serious argument that he would have stood a chance in such a circumstance. As it is, if Obama ever trots out a rapper dialect, I'd dissolve in laughter because it just wouldn't be believable. Likewise, if Obama started wearing blue jeans so big that he showed us his underwear, I'd be convinced that: A) Michelle had left him, and B) he'd lost his mind. That was the argument that Reid was getting at with his "Negro dialect" remark. A better characterization is an "urban street" dialect because it spoken by white and black alike in the areas where it is used.

Finally, when thinking about the Lott comments that our nation would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had been elected President in 1948 so we could have avoided "all these problems" over the years, I am struck by the truthfulness of those remarks versus Reid's comments. Lott was lamenting that an ardent segregationist had not won the White House in 1948, and "all those problems" could only be described as the dismanteling of the aparteid system in the United States at the time. It is DEMONSTRABLY FALSE that the United States would have been better off had Strom Thurmond been elected President in 1948. His election would have set our nation back DECADES, and likely have resulted in a much more violent civil rights movement. Anyone wistfully remembering segregation and wishing it could have been prolonged, and saying it would have been GOOD for the country is lying.

With Reid, who can say his statement was false? How would Obama's chances at election have changed if he had a darker skin color? What if he wasn't nearly as eloquent, and spoke instead in a general urban street dialect favored by hard core rappers? Who can seriously argue that making such a change would not have killed his chances at election? I don't know how his skin hue would have changed things, but I do know that skin tone is still a huge issue in the African American community, where lighter skinned folks are seen as "better" somehow in the media and by the public in general. We're trained to think "dark" is "sinister" and "bad". If we only changed his skin hue, would Obama have won? I don't know. I'd hope so, but I simply do not know. Reid did not speak a lie when he made his remarks, unlike Lott when he made his.

Finally, I think it does make a difference when a public official makes a stupid statement like Reid did with "negro dialect" to look at his public record. Harry Reid has been pro-diveristy and has worked on behalf of black Americans during his career. Trent Lott, on the other hand, did little to nothing for black people, and could be argued to have had a career that was outright hostile to them and their interests. Such a record DOES make a difference. Lott had a horrible record on helping black Americans, and his statement was an ugly, bald faced lie. Reid's statement was ignorant, but his assessment of the role of race in the election was a common one, and made by political people from the grassroots to the very highest levels. His assessment was also truthful, even if we find its discussion embarassing.

That's why the Reid and Lott situations are different, and why Reid does not need to step down.

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