The Republicans have suddenly discovered their previously undetectable racial sensitivity, and are calling for Harry Reid to resign as Majority Leader of the Senate because of some awkward language Reid used to describe his enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s candidacy. They are equating Reid’s stated enthusiasm for Obama’s candidacy to former Senator Trent Lott’s stated enthusiasm for segregation. Sadly, some soft-minded liberals are joining them in claiming that Obama and those of us too smart to fall for this false equivalency are hypocrites.
There is a difference between Reid and Lott, and what Reid and Lott said, that distinguishes the cases for anyone who is neither intellectually dishonest nor intellectually stunted. In fact, there are three big differences, and I’ll point them out for those who think that all unfortunate mentions of race are equivalent, and justification for a political death penalty.
1. What They Said: Let’s look at what Harry Reid said, in his enthusiasm for Obama’s candidacy. He made the accurate observation that Obama’s skin is relatively light, and said that he speaks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” It uses a ’50s era term for African-American, it (inaccurately?) implies that America might face more difficulty in supporting a darker-skinned candidate, and it implies that the pattern of speech employed by a segment of African-Americans is a broader “Negro dialect”. One might just as fairly express joy that a Missouri politician speaks with no inbred hillbilly dialect.
Distasteful, I agree, and not the sort of thing I like to see from a Democrat.
Trent Lott, on the other hand, said that he was proud to have voted for Strom Thurmond when he ran as a segregationist and opposed anti-lynching legislation, and that “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” Do I need to map out the differences? While Reid was speaking enthusiastically about electing a black president, Lott was speaking enthusiastically about segregation and wishing that we could go back to the pre-civil rights South and lynching. To find a distinction between the two does not demonstrate hypocrisy, it demonstrates an understanding of the difference between a little insensitivity and a deep resentment of uppity blacks causing problems.
2. Who They Are: As President Obama points out, Harry Reid has worked with him and other Senators on socially progressive causes to help the underprivileged for years. He’s got some credibility on racial issues. He’s built up a store of good will that he can draw upon in assuring his friends that he is sincere in his remorse and forward in his thinking.
Trent Lott was a product of the Republican racist “Southern Strategy” to win the votes of those who believed exactly what Lott said to Thurmond – we’d be better off with segregation and lynching. Lott was an enthusiastic supporter of the Klan-like CCC, and sought to regain citizenship for Jefferson Davis. He voted against extending the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. He voted against the Martin Luther King holiday. Suffice it to say, Lott had not built up a store of good will on racial issues.
3. Reid Has Been Forgiven: It is amusing to see all the pundits (especially the white ones, and certainly including me) and right wing politicians trying to tell everyone else how to think about a verbal exchange between two men who have already put it behind them. The RIGHTeous indignation on behalf of someone who has announced himself satisfied with an apology is enough to make one think that they are more interested in political opportunism than concern about Obama’s tender feelings.
Folks, this thing is not about hypocrisy, for the simple reason that it is not hypocritical to distinguish between a thoughtless remark supporting a black presidency and a career spent yearning for the good old days of segregation and lynching. The intellectually corrupt Republicans and the fuzzy-thinking liberals who are attempting to equate the two are acting as though Lott’s only flaw was one awful remark, and that Reid’s remark is equivalent to a career.