Everybody knows what Harry said. Barack Obama had a good shot at the presidency because he was “light skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”.
Reid and Obama both concede the words were poorly chosen. But are we dealing with racism?
Republican politicians think so. Or rather, they feel that if the senior Democrat in the Senate gets a pass on this one, America should apologize to Trent Lott.
No one on either side of this dust-up is suggesting that Reid’s observations were factually inaccurate. True or not, it is suggested, the remarks was indelicate and insensitive.
African Americans, for the most part, don’t seem to mind. Reid was merely stating the obvious–some white Americans are more comfortable with people of color so long as they don’t have too much color.
Morever, middle class African American parents stress to their children that a mastery of standard English (the way folks talk on the evening news) is a prerequisite to a good job.
Whites from the rural South face a similar challenge, although to a smaller extent.
If Harry Reid thinks it’s okay for white voters to prefer light-skinned black candidates who could pass for white over the telephone, I’ve got a problem with that. It isn’t okay. Lyndon Johnson didn’t need to transcend his Texas dialect to get elected. In fact, his “Muh fella Amuricans” was reassuring to a lot of people. So why should a black candidate have to sound white to get elected?
On the other hand, if Reid was merely admitting the regrettable fact that many potential African American candidates look and sound too black to make it to the White House I defy anyone to argue. Whether he should have said what he said is another matter. If he had slipped in a few qualifiers like “unfortunately” or “I wish it were otherwise, but . . .” no one would have taken offense.
Of course, the word “Negro” suggests that Mr. Reid is every bit as old as his pictures suggest. The use of the old n-word is more likely to offend young African Americans who didn’t grow up hearing it and have never used it themselves.
According to the Telegraph (a British paper), the book “Game Change”, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, “alleges that when efforts to persuade the late Edward Kennedy to endorse his wife’s presidential bid fell flat when the former president reportedly told his old friend that just a few years ago Mr Obama would have been serving them coffee.”
Yuck! No wonder Kennedy threw his weight behind Obama!
Clinton’s “coffee” remark suggests that because African Americans were once relegated to servile jobs, Barack Obama is an uppity Negro who wants too much too fast. If Reid shared that perception he would deserve the negative press he is getting. But the Senate majority leader was clearly excited about Obama’s candidacy.
I suspect Mr. Clinton would have shared Mr. Reid’s enthusiasm for Barack Obama if Hillary Clinton hadn’t been in the primary race. Politics makes strange bed fellows and strains long-established friendships. If Bill had no horse in the presidential race (and no, I am not calling Hillary Clinton a horse) I suspect he would have been thrilled that his party had a strong candidate.
On the other hand, opinions we don’t dare acknowledge, even to ourselves, can slip out when we’re hurt or angry.
I am too concerned about the millions of white Americans (most of them over fifty) who are unprepared for an African American president to worry about folks who artlessly rejoice in the upward trajectory of a black politician. Had Reid been forty years younger, the right words would have sprung naturally to his lips.
Trent Lott addressed a meeting of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens and explicitly endorsed their views. Lott wished that segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond had been elected in 1948. Lott was raised to believe in the goodness of segregation and no one in the social and political circles he moves in has ever suggested he change his mind. If that’s the way Mr. Lott thinks he might as well shout it to the world. But don’t expect the rest of us to give him a pass.
Like Trent Lott, Harry Reid is the product of a racist era. The difference is that Reid knows the old ways were wrong, even if his off-the-cuff remarks suggest he hasn’t outgrown his roots as much as we, or he, might like.