Reid and Lott


As you all most certainly know, an embarrassing quote from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., surfaced over the weekend. Reid apparently stated during the 2008 election that then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., would be an electable African-American candidate because he was lighter-skinned, and because he had the ability not to speak in a “Negro dialect.”

The quote was cringeworthy, and full of what Josh Marshall once described as “racial grandpaism,” the sort of archaic, muddled statement made by a guy who is generally well-meaning, but also generally possessed by some racist baggage left over from their upbringing.

Was the quote racist? Well, yes. But racism is not a capital offense; I have said racist things and so have you. One can’t grow up in America and not be suffused with some of the racist legacy our culture carries. The best any of us can do is recognize this and strive to overcome it, and apologize and learn when we fail to live up to our responsibility to overcome it.

More to the point, Reid’s statement, while clumsy and racist, was not malicious. He wasn’t saying that Obama shouldn’t be president because he was a charlatan, or that it was reasonable and proper that darker-skinned African-Americans should be less electable. A more artful phrasing of what he was trying to say might have gone something like this: Because of the legacy of racism in this country, a candidate like Barack Obama, who is biracial and who is able to speak to audiences in a manner that is less connected with stereotypically African-American speech patterns, will be more electable than a candidate like, say, Al Sharpton, who is darker-skinned and whose speaking style is more stereotypically African-American.

That doesn’t mean that this is right; it’s a value-neutral statement of fact. And what’s more, it’s true. Just as it’s true to say that being white makes one more “electable,” historically, than not being white, or that men are more likely to be elected president than women. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s something we should work to change. But it’s true, and saying so doesn’t make one a racist or sexist. Saying so makes one observant.

Which brings us to former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

As you may recall, Trent Lott used to be Senate Majority Leader until, in 2002, he was forced out in a scandal involving a statement he made that included racist language. The then-Majority Leader’s statement that got him in trouble came in a tribute to retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, KKK-S.C. Lott said of Thurmond:

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.

Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948, at a time when he was a Democrat of the traditional Southern variety – i.e., a flaming racist douchebag who nevertheless had an illegitimate biracial daughter conceived, quite probably, in rape.

Southern Democrats were furious at efforts by President Truman to ameliorate the damage caused by the apartheid system of segregation. The breaking point came at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, at which a young Minneapolis mayor by the name of Hubert Humphrey urged the party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The speech prompted a walkout of Southern Democrats, who left to form their own party, the Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats nominated Thurmond, at the time the Governor of South Carolina, as their standard-bearer.

The party’s platform was simple: States’ Rights. Anti-Miscegenation. Pro-Segregation. Pro-Lynching. They were a party whose raison d’être was the full-throated defense of Jim Crow. Perhaps their platform was summed up best by Thurmond, who during the campaign said, “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra [sic] race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Again, when he said those words, he had a 23-year-old African-American daughter.

Flash-forward back to today. Many on the right, apparently wowed by their ability to connect that both Trent Lott and Harry Reid were or are Senate Majority Leaders, and that both were accused of racism, are now calling on Reid to step down as Majority Leader, because the situation is totally the same. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said flatly, “If he [Lott] should resign, then Harry Reid should.”

This is, in a word, bonkers.

Again, what Reid said was inartful and cringe-inducing and yes, racist. But it was not malicious. A different phrasing could save it from racism, and the core idea – that America in 2010 will treat candidates of varying racial backgrounds in different ways – is absolutely true.

Compare to what Lott said. Lott said that if America had followed Mississippi’s lead in 1948 and voted for the Dixiecrats, that America today would have avoided a lot of problems.

And yet the Dixiecrats stood for the worst sorts of barbarism committed in this country. They were the spiritual heirs to the slaveholders, the men and women who were absolutely and completely committed to keeping a boot of the throats of all non-white Americans. They expressly supported lynching, for God’s sake.

There is no way to save that quote, no way to phrase it that does not make it offensive and malicious. Lott was saying, flatly, that if only we’d maintained a system of segregation and racial apartheid in the South, that America today would be better off.

To compare the two situations is ludicrous.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it:

Claiming that Harry Reid’s comments are the same, is like claiming that referring to Jews as “Hebrews” is the same as endorsing Nazism. Whereas a reputable portion of black people still use the term Negro without a hint of irony, no black person thinks the guy yelling “Segregation Forever!” would have cured us of “all these problems.”

Leaving aside political cynicism, this entire affair proves that the GOP is not simply still infected with the vestiges of white supremacy and racism, but is neither aware of the infection, nor understands the disease. Listening to Liz Cheney explain why Harry Reid’s comments were racist, was like listening to me give lessons on the finer points of the comma splice. This a party, rightly or wrongly, regarded by significant portions of the country as a haven for racists. They aren’t simply having a hard time re-branding, they don’t actually understand how and why they got the tag.

Exactly right. Harry Reid said something stupid while arguing that a specific African-American man could get himself elected to the presidency. Trent Lott endorsed the worst part of America’s racial legacy, and held it up as our nation’s salvation. That Republicans can take these two situations and not see a difference between them says far more about the Republican Party than about Harry Reid.