Kevin Hollinshead, Staff Writer
Ideology: Progressive | Writing From: Fort Collins, CO
Much has been made about race relations in this country since Barack Obama took the office of President of the United States one year ago tomorrow. Many hoped that the man would help usher in a new post-racial era in this country’s history. Instead, his presidency has thus far just added an extra wrinkle to a political arena saturated with overblown controversies about comments on race in this country.
The latest comment to take the political world by storm comes from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, via the new book Game Change. In it, he told reporters that Mr. Obama had a chance of winning the 2008 election because he was both “light-skinned” and didn’t speak with a “Negro dialect.”
The stupidity, insensitivity, and old-fashioned vernacular (who even uses the word “negro” anymore?) of this comment have certainly gotten people hot and bothered, and like clockwork, Republicans have called for Reid to give up his position as Majority Leader, or even to resign altogether.
When railing about the quip ad nauseam, the GOP is quick to point toward the demotion of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as precedent. However, history shows that this kind of comparison is one of apples and oranges.
On December 5, 2002, at the 100th birthday party of Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Lott commented: “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”
Reasonable people took offense to this because Thurmond had based his 1948 presidential campaign largely on an explicitly segregationist platform. Lott’s voting patterns as a Congressman didn’t help either; he voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act, voted against the continuation of the Civil Rights Act, and opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday. He had even made similar comments back in 1980. All in all, not a good track record for someone who tried to repudiate Thurmond’s views during an interview on BET.
The problem with our media’s coverage of potentially racist comments and actions is that people are too quick in calling for some kind of punishment similar to one handed out in the past, regardless of how dissimilar the two situations really are.
Reid’s quote in Game Change was merely a poorly-worded, but sadly true, observation of the prospects of a particular African American presidential candidate. While a majority of Americans won’t dismiss a candidate purely for the color of his skin, or for his speech mannerisms, there are some who cannot help but notice these things.
Lott, on the other hand, spoke favorably about a politician who based much of his presidential campaign on the idea that the black population had to be separated from the white population. Simply put, Reid’s comment was largely innocent, while Lott’s was malicious in nature.
Senator Reid’s slip-up is ultimately an anomaly when compared against his political career, which is littered with support for expanding civil rights and liberties to minority groups. Lott’s comment falls in line with his opposition to several pieces of civil rights legislation.
While I don’t think a single racist comment necessarily dictates that a senator give up his leadership position in either of the aforementioned cases, Lott at least came closer to truly deserving it with a clear track record of implicit racism. Then again, if polling continues to trend the way it has been, Democrats would benefit from having Republicans force Reid out of his position, or out of the Senate completely. Sen. Chuck Schumer would likely be a stronger Majority Leader than Reid, given his more forceful approach to progressive policy as of late. Meanwhile, Reid’s popularity in Nevada continues to fall, and another Democrat on the ballot would only increase their chances in a state dominated by the Democratic machine.
However unwise Reid’s brain fart may have been, more people than not can tell when politicians are making a mountain out of a molehill. So by all means, keep blasting away, Republicans. Just be aware that the longer you press this issue, the more you may end up overplaying your hand, and the more likely that Nevada voters will be turned off by this.