Tone deaf politics or racism? Reid vs. Lott

In his recent post, Eric D. Knowles of The Situationist added his two cents to the pile of commentary on Majority Leader Reid’s foot-in-mouth moment while he was speaking about the then Senator Barrack Obama. The post is written as a comparison between Reid’s comment and Trent Lott’s comment for which he was politically excommunicated.  Knowles admits that the statement was impolitic, but his position is essentially a defense of Reid:

Interestingly, I haven’t read or heard a single commentator dispute the accuracy of what Reid said. I’ve heard many say—and I agree—that his comments were indelicate and his use of the term “Negro” anachronistic. Politically stupid, yes. But also true.

Reading the post, I was initially quite persuaded by Knowles’ well-chosen analogy.

Imagine a scenario. An African American lawyer, we can even call him “Barry,” has applied for a job at a prestigious firm—one that has never before hired a Black person. You eavesdrop on a couple of partners talking about the candidate. Question: Which, if either, of the these overheard comments is the more racist?

“I don’t know… Barry’s facing an uphill climb at an all-White firm like this. However, he just might have a shot given the fact that he’s fairly light-complected and doesn’t speak usingAfrican American Vernacular English.”

* * *

“This firm’s going to hell if it hires a Black guy. I wish Strom Thurmond were the head of the hiring committee.”

But let’s dig a bit deeper into the matter.  After the jump, I try to explain why I think Reid’s remark was racist.

So, the vast amount of debate on Reid vs. Lott seems to try to answer the question: “Which one of these is a racist?”  The definition of “racist” seems clear enough to me: one who favors distinctions based on race as a useful social ordering system. (As a side note, this is not a jab against affirmative action, which I do not believe to be a pure distinction based on race, but that’s a topic for another post).  In that light, why should it matter that Reid was merely stating a fact (whether or not it’s true).  The question is, does Reid’s statement betray his predisposition against Blacks.  I’ll get to that later, but let’s first get rid of the common defenses of Reid we hear in the media.

The oft-used defense employed by the pro-Reid crowd is that the man has been working hard for African Americans.  But that’s no answer.  Reid is a politician. A good one at that. As a Democrat and as a Senator of a state with over 30% minority residents, he would be ill served if he didn’t work hard for African Americans.  The fact that he was “praising” Obama doesn’t mean that he is not racist either.  A completely consistent story could go like this: “when politically expedient, I will support an African American.”    Nor is it a defense to say that Reid was supporting Obama for presidency – he would be merely a shrewed racist (perhaps one we’re unaccustomed to) by promoting a single “light-skinned” Black who didn’t have to talk “Negro.”

So what, if anything, in Reid’s statement might betray racism?  First, the “Negro” word. It’s easy to throw it out as a stupid mistake. Just a word, an unfortunate descriptor. Yet if he used the other n-word, no one would seriously contest a charge of racism.  Why is that? The word carries a lot of well-founded disdain in the African American community.  It’s painful roots grow out of our history of slavery and segregation. So the n-word is off limits (at least for whites) because of it is so offensive to the African American community.  The mere utterance of it, then, signals the speaker’s disregard for the suffering, and thus for the people. From that disregard, that projected sense of irrelevance, for that class of people we are willing to dub the speaker a racist.  The difference between the “Negro” and the other n-word is merely in degree. For much the same reasons, a white person is bound to offend many in the African American community by using the former word when he/she doesn’t have to. To a lesser degree, but still. Reid used the word “Negro.”  That’s not stupidity – Reid can only claim stupidity if he didn’t know what the word meant to the African American community. If he did so know, then it was a mistake of a “Freudian slip” variety – a word he’s comfortable using in other settings, but it just slipped out here.   To me, it shows the same exact disregard for the Black community as the n-word; racism … just not all the way.

Of course, it is possible that there’s some mythical person out there who uses the various n-words, but doesn’t support social ordering via  race. That person, of course, will see the inconsistency when he comes out of the bunker. But it is difficult, to say the least, to give that benefit of the doubt to a savvy and very successful politician – it’s hard to get to Harry Reid’s place in the food chain without a canny understanding of people.

As to the substance of Reid’s remark (i.e. that a light-skinned African American who can turn off the dialect is electable), it’s that merely tone deaf either. Sure, the talking heads had been saying something like that for a while before Game Change went on the shelves. But that’s apples and oranges to me. That sentiment coming out of the mouth of an elected representative of the American people, one of the most important figures in the Democratic party, carries the unsettling air of approval of the proposition. Is it OK to discriminate against dark-skinned Blacks?  “But he never said that this was OK!” you might say. But  he never said that it wasn’t either… Do I wish to berate a man for not giving a disclaimer? This man, I do! Reid is not Joe Six-pack. As a man of high public office, he has high responsibilities. Is a simple “unfortunately” too much to ask of such a man? I don’t think so.

Should Reid have apologized to the African American community? Yes. To the American people? Yes. Should he have resigned? That’s a lot tougher. If we want Reid not to be a racist, resignation will hardly do the trick. If we want to send a message that racism won’t be tolerated in our government, then forced resignation might help (although Reid’s remarks took place long after Trent Lott’s disgraceful descent, so, maybe, the deterrent is not as strong as we might like). But it might also just make politicians be more careful about disclosing their biases. It would also signal that we don’t believe racists can’t be rehabilitated. For now, I am torn on the question. That makes it, perhaps, a topic for another post.

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