Having grown up in Alabama under Jim Crow, I’ve got some experience distinguishing among genuine racism, racial insensitivity and comments/behavior that are merely stupid. There’s not always a fine line separating the categories, but my ability to navigate my world has long depended on distinguishing a malevolent racist from an insensitive boob.
I’ve never believed that a white person’s use of the “n” word is de facto proof of his racism. (It is, rather, de facto proof of boorishness.) And I’ve met my share of white good ‘ol boys who drove pickup trucks with rebel flag decals but who were, nevertheless, unfailingly polite and helpful to me. They are not racists. I’ve also met well-educated Northern whites who were quite polite to me but whose behavior betrayed their belief that blacks were somewhat inferior. They are racists.
Harry Reid, with his truly stupid comments about the president, falls into the insensitive boob category. Trent Lott may as well. But the remarks that Lott made were much more damaging — as anyone willing to be sincere about race relations would admit.
(Blogs, admittedly, are not the best format for discussing race relations. The ability of commenters to post anonymously tends to bring out the most sophomoric and moronic behavior. Nevertheless, I sally forth, hoping that a few of my readers, white, black and brown, want to think about race deeply.)
Reid, as you no doubt know, said Obama would probably be elected because he’s “light-skinned” and has no “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Reid’s first observation is one that he shouldn’t have uttered out loud but is nonetheless inarguable. But his second about the “Negro dialect” is infuriating. What the heck is that? Was Obama the first black person Reid has ever been around who is middle-class, well-educated and speaks standard English well?
Needless to say, Reid has apologized profusely, as he should have.
Reid has moved quickly to show contrition after a new book, “Game Change” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin revealed that he made comments in 2008 suggesting that Barack Obama could be elected president because he is “light skinned” and lacks “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Embarrassed by the remarks and already facing a tough climb to reelection in the fall, Reid has reached out to the African American community, apologizing for his comments and highlighting his legislative record of backing civil rights issues important to the black community. He immediately won a showing of support from prominent Democratic black leaders, including the president, who accepted his apology and said he’s seen the “passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice and I know what’s in his heart. As far as I’m concerned, the book is closed.”
Republicans, however, don’t want the book closed. Looking for any opportunity to damage Democrats, they are comparing Reid’s remarks to those Lott made several years ago which led to his resignation as Senate Majority Leader. (Really, the GOP shouldn’t get into this. They are in no position to suggest any other person or group is guilty of racial insensitivity.)
At a public celebration of Strom Thurmond’s birthday, Lott said:
“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 the years, either.”
That sent a shiver down my spine. Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat determined that black people would never enjoy full citizenship in these United States. He was a full-throated segregationist who wanted black people denied the right to vote, to be educated in good schools, to eat at decent restaurants or to stay in the Holiday Inn. He wanted to preserve a system were black people didn’t serve on juries and were lynched over trumped-up charges. He wanted to preserve a system where men like him could take advantage of a teen-aged black maid and impregnate her — as Thurmond did. He wanted to keep a system wherein black teachers were paid less than their white counterparts.
Anybody who bothers to think can see the difference between the remarks made by Lott and those made by Reid.
One more thing: Lott apologized almost immediately, and had I been serving in the Senate with him, I probably would have accepted his apology. I would have considered him a creature of his time and place — a privileged white guy with little understanding of what it meant to be black in the Deep South during Thurmond’s heyday.
But Lott was run off by Republicans, who pressured him to resign. Enough with the hypocrisy, already.