Monday, January 11, 2010

Is Reid a racist?

In case you haven't heard, the senate majority leader Harry Reid, said of Obama during the 2008 primaries that Obama was a viable candidate because he was "light skinned" and didn't speak with a "Negro dialect."

For regular readers of this blog, it goes without saying that his remarks are problematic, particularly the fact that in the 21st century, Reid is using a phrase that is clearly antiquated and offensive.

Republicans, especially in the form of Michael Steele, the RNC chairman (and yes, if anyone before Obama's presidential election-win was scratching their heads thinking "Michael who?" one only has to think back on Obama's Illinois senate run-off against KC Watts to understand the (il)logic of the Republican party in how they handle race), are crying "DOUBLE STANDARD" when it comes to the Democratic reaction to Reid's remarks. They want Reid OUT and they are citing the ouster of Trent Lott after Lott famously praised Strom Thurmond and waxed nostalgic for the good-old-days of segregation that Thurmond represented when he unsuccessfully ran for President.

So people have been asking: is Reid a racist? Were his remarks racist? Should he be forced to resign?

I hesitated to blog on this issue because it almost seems like a non-starter. I don't mean that Reid's remarks are egregiously in bad taste and racially insensitive (they are) or that the race-baiting that the Republicans are now engaging in doesn't smack of the worst of opportunism (it does), but do we need to really debate whether or not Harry Reid is a racist or more specifically whether his remarks are racist? Does it matter the context in which Reid was speaking--in support of an African American man who was running for the presidency vs. Lott's remarks--in support of a known segregationist who espoused the worst racist rhetoric of his time once-upon-a-time?

Why I am blogging about it now is that I think it's easy to flatten out all instances of racial insensitivity and, again, easy to trot out the dreaded "R" word when accusing folks of different levels of offensiveness. Is Trent Lott a racist? I'm not really quite certain. Does it matter whether I call him a racist or his remarks racists? Again, what I would say is that we have to look at the context of Lott's remarks and to think about what he was trying to convey--support for a colleague and friend who espoused a platform of racial separation within a white supremacist framework--and that Lott affirmed, in his remarks, that the U.S. would be a better place to live had Thurmond won the presidency and was allowed to have his value and politics triumph. Reid's remarks, by contrast, while racially insensitive and ignorant in phraseology (again, really Mr. Reid? Negro? Who uses that phrase?) were meant to convey a hard truth: that for many voters, Obama seemed palatable because he wasn't threatening or living up to a stereotype of an African American man that would make white mainstream voters uncomfortable.

The question to ask isn't whether Reid is racist or his remarks are racist--the question to ask is, why is Reid using such antiquated language and why are the Republicans so quick to jump on the bandwagon all of a sudden when so many of their supporters and politicians have been making racist and racially insensitive comments about President Obama far worse than Reid's remarks? In my opinion, it's because the Republicans see all racially insensitive remarks or all awkward racial remarks to be on par with all racist remarks.

And flattening out these differences is similar to deflections of real racism and racial discrimination by claiming that there is reverse racism or that blacks are prejudiced against whites just as much as whites may be against blacks or that individuals of color are bigoted against white people. What this flattening does is ignore a complicated history of power dynamics and institutional racism and white supremacy. It makes it seem as if all is the same when it's not.

Anyway, my final word on this will actually be to draw your attention to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" and the piece they did on this subject today as well as Kelli Goff's piece in The Huffington Post. I do think Goff, on the radio, said it best--we have to really ask ourselves about whether these are teachable moments rather than to react defensively. If only the Republican party could learn that lesson...

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