Lost in all the sturm und drang following Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) comments about Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential chances is a simple fact: He got it right.
To quickly sum up: Game Change, a new, gossipy book about the historic presidential campaign, quoted Reid saying in a private conversation that he encouraged Obama to run and could win the White House. He described the first-term Illinois senator as “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Reid nailed it. And now, thanks to conservative mischief makers and faux-incredulous Sunday talk show panelists, the majority leader is being made out to be some closeted, robe-and-pointed-cap wearing racist.
Not so fast. Trying to make the racism charge stick to Reid over his admittedly poor word choices is misguided. Reid is no racist and what he said wasn’t either. But that’s not stopping opportunistic critics from trying to make it seem so.
Liz Cheney appeared on ABC’s “This Week” to boldly debate columnist George Will over whether Reid’s quotes were “fairly racist comments.” Then, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is black and has a history of saying stupid and racially inflammatory things—such as his plan to attract blacks to the GOP by offering them “fried chicken and potato salad”—called for Reid’s resignation as majority leader.
But Reid’s resignation isn’t going to happen, partly because President Obama quickly accepted Reid’s apology and said the book was closed on this matter as far as he was concerned. No Democrat has taken the bait to condemn Reid, either. As well they shouldn’t. Truth be told, Reid didn’t do anything wrong.
Quite the contrary—he spoke the truth and was caught up in a political correctness maelstrom engineered by opportunistic rivals.
Not to mention that what Reid said in whispers years ago about Obama was no different from what black people were saying about him at the same time. Some, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, leveled far worse criticisms, arguing that Obama was “acting like he’s white” as he campaigned for the presidency.
Jackson wasn’t alone. In inner-city barber shops and beauty parlors, on African-American church parking lots, and verdant campuses of historically black colleges and universities, black people debated whether the biracial Obama, whose mother was a white Midwesterner and father a black Kenyan, would appeal more to white voters than black voters.
Yes, he is light skinned and he does speak with crisp diction. So the question was often posed “is Obama black enough?” After Obama was elected the 44th U.S. president, much of that foolishness subsided. But it didn’t disappear because colorism and racial prejudice haven’t been erased from the fabric of American life, even if the president is a black man.
Sadly, those charged with understanding this aren’t up to the task. What passes for journalistic reporting is more titillation and controversy than trying to make a complex issue like race clear to ill-informed and confused citizens. Imagine how much better informed Americans might have been if the pundits explained how Reid’s words actually reflected this nation’s fixation on making any deviation from whiteness as abnormal, deviant, or inferior. Instead, we get echo-chamber journalism that gives a lift to scurrilous sideshow politics.
Review last weekend’s television talk shows. The pseudo tsk-tsking and pretend horror expressed on those political shows issued from the whites-only talking heads. Worse, none of those shows featured a journalist of color who might have helped the viewers understand that political stakeholders are using Reid’s comments as just one more political weapon in the never-ending Washington war games.
At the end of the day, that’s what all this palaver is about anyway. In 2002, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott lost his leadership after suggesting the nation would have been better served if then-avowed segregationist Strom Thurmond has been elected president in 1948. Even fellow Republicans thought Lott crossed the line in praising Thurmond, saying, “I want to say this about my state: 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 all these years, either."
What problems? Could Lott mean the right of blacks to vote in states like Mississippi and South Carolina? Federal enforcement of those laws contributed to Obama’s election as president, something that Thurmond failed to do 60 years earlier.
So that’s the real reason that Reid is being pilloried by conservative operatives, who’ve rarely said a mumbling word in support of African Americans’ political aspirations. It’s payback.
Reid’s comment, which he never intended for public airing, is embarrassing because it shames those who resent the current president but are too cowardly to admit that race has anything to do with their picayune nitpicking of his leadership.
No, they want to pretend that they’re good Americans who don’t see racial differences. Reid pulled back the covers inadvertently to expose the bitter truth. He said honestly what many white voters think and see when they encounter a black person—even if that person goes on to become the first black president of their nation.
Sam Fulwood is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where he analyzes the influence of national politics and domestic policies on communities of color across the United States.