Harry Reid and Trent Lott — a specious comparison

Michael Steele was on the Sunday news programs comparing the reaction to Harry Reid’s comments about Barack Obama — “light-skinned” and with “no Negro dialect unless he want[s] to have one” — to the comments that got Trent Lott in trouble. Back in 2002, during a birthday celebration for Strom Thurmond, Lott spoke favorably about Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. Lott promptly apologized, but was forced to step down as leader of Senate Republicans. This recollection led Steele to say:

There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it’s racism. It’s either racist or it’s not. And it’s inappropriate, absolutely.

Steele is correct that there is a double standard in these matters, but he and many others are wrong to equate Reid’s comment with Lott’s. Trent Lott lauded the presidential candidacy of an avowed segregrationist, suggesting that things would have gone better if that candidate had been elected. His comments were normative and, if he meant what he said, racist because they implied that segregration was preferable to integration. We condemned Lott at the time.
Reid was not discussing who should be elected president. He was merely commenting on Barack Obama’s viability as a presidential candidate. His view was that Obama’s race would not hurt him with voters who might be disinclined to elect a black man because he is light-skinned and able to talk white, as they say. I strongly suspect that many politicians and pundits made similar sorts of assessments. Even if incorrect, they are not improper, provided one is assessing how others might vote, as opposed to deciding to vote one’s self.
Reid’s analysis was a bit crude. The main thing that differentiated Obama from unsuccessful candidates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton was his ability to employ moderate-sounding rhetoric, not his skin-tone and “dialect.” But it isn’t racist to believe that these two characteristics would also help differentiate Obama to his benefit, as indeed they may have done.
Reid’s problem is that it’s in everyone’s interests to find his remarks highly offensive. Conservatives and Republicans will seize on anything in order to beat up on Reid. Blacks and hard-leftists see this as another opportunty to assert their control over the way people are permitted to talk about race. Ordinary liberals need to stay on the good side of blacks and so find it more convenient to condemn Reid’s statement but forgive the man than to thumb their noses at political correctness.
I have no sympathy for Harry Reid, but I hate to see the liberal speech police have their way, and dislike seeing conservatives taking the lead in the process.
JOHN adds: Many years of experience have taught me to disagree with Paul rarely if ever, since I usually turn out to be wrong. When I wrote yesterday that Harry Reid’s comments, as reported in Game Change, were “absurdly racist,” I was writing quickly, mostly to make a different point, and hadn’t thought through why his comments seemed not just tone-deaf but racist to me. Paul’s dissent caused me to think more carefully about why I reacted as I did and whether that reaction was justified. First, a reminder of what Reid said:

Reid, they write, “believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.”

Reid was right, of course, that Obama’s race was a plus not only in the Democratic primaries but in the general election. Upon reflection, though, I still think that his comments as reported can fairly be seen as racist, although not blatantly so. The key point is that Reid’s assessment reflected a certain view not just of his fellow citizens, but of African-Americans. He apparently saw Obama’s lack of a “Negro dialect”–that is, his ability to speak proper English–as a quality that distinguished him from other African-Americans. But that’s ridiculous: how many African-Americans who are prominent in any sphere of life are unable to speak good English? Does Clarence Thomas speak in “Negro dialect”? Does Colin Powell? Does Ken Chenault? Does Oprah Winfrey? Does Bill Cosby? Does, for that matter, Michael Jordan, Larry Fitzgerald, Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter? Heck, Kirby Puckett was considerably more articulate than Harry Reid.
Has Reid been so isolated from American life for the last several decades that he doesn’t realize that this country is teeming with smart, articulate men and women who are wholly or partly of African descent? For that matter, is he unaware that such men and women have populated our history for more than two hundred years? I think it’s fair to say that anyone who finds it surprising or even noteworthy that an African-American can speak proper English has a more jaundiced view of that demographic than the average American.
Likewise with Reid’s conviction that it is an advantage to be “light-skinned.” Is there any evidence for the proposition that an African-American has to be “light-skinned” to be accepted by the general public? I could elaborate, but you get the idea. There is a point where attitudes are not just clueless, they are benighted. And I think Reid’s comments showed that his own attitudes cross that line. I would add in Reid’s defense that what Game Change reported are sentence fragments. As a general proposition, one should not consign anyone to perdition on the basis of sentence fragments.
I do think that Paul’s assessment is correct, i.e., it was not Obama’s ability to speak proper English but rather his ability to talk like a moderate who was capable of representing all Americans that helped to make him electable.
As for Trent Lott: if Lott seriously believed that it would have been a good thing for a segregationist to have been elected President in 1948, then his downfall was well-deserved. But I don’t think Lott believed any such thing. I think he was just giving an impromptu tribute to Strom Thurmond on Thurmond’s 100th birthday and was trying to say nice things about the honoree. What Lott said was stupid, but I don’t think it represented any considered judgment, political or otherwise. I think the cases of Lott and Reid are sufficiently different that, as Paul said, any comparison is specious.
PAUL adds: John makes lots of good points and I think readers are in a position, without much further comment, to decide which of us has this one right. I would only add that the African-American men who had previously sought the Democratic nomination — Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — spoke considerably more “black” than Obama does, unless he wants to (inarticulate though he is, Reid nailed the part about Obama being able to talk either way). So I think it’s natural, and not racist, that Reid would have seen Obama’s way of speaking as something new and advantageous.

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