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Harry and Trent: A Tale of Two Gaffes

I’ve been kind of absent from the blogosphere recently, except for my weekly Magical Words posts. The “Robin Hood” project was pretty consuming, and I just haven’t had much time to comment on politics or sports or life itself. I’m finally finished, though, and, it seems, just in time. It’s as if in the last week or so the entire world has gone crazy. The Baseball Hall of Fame vote, Mark McGwire’s non-admission admission of steroid use, the tragic deaths of the CIA operatives in Afghanistan.

And, of course, the craziness surrounding the release of the book GAME CHANGE and the revelation that early in the 2008 campaign, Harry Reid said in private that [mostly paraphrasing here] Barack Obama was an ideal African-American candidate because he was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Since the book’s release, Republicans have been equating Reid’s remarks with racially insensitive statements made by then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002, and have been accusing Democrats and progressives of having a double standard when it comes to racial gaffes of this sort.

In my mind these are two separate matters, and they need to be addressed as such.

Let’s start by looking more closely at the comparison between Lott’s remarks and Reid’s. What Harry Reid said is certainly “inartful” to use the President’s word. It could even be called offensive or at the very least insensitive. It was also, at root, true. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Barack Obama was more successful than previous African-American Presidential candidates because his mother was white and because he speaks without the inflections stereotypically associated with African-American men, is kidding himself. Should Reid have said this? Probably not. But he did so in a private conversation, and while his words were awkward, they were not outrageous.

Compare that with Lott’s statement. Speaking on December 5, 2002, at a public celebration of Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said this:

When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we [the state of Mississippi] 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 the years, either.

Thurmond ran for President in 1948 as a Dixiecrat, on a strict segregationist platform. In essence, Lott was embracing racist views that Thurmond himself had long since repudiated. If we take him at his word, he actually believed that electing a segregationist in 1948 would have made this country a better place. That’s not “inartful”. That’s not awkward. That is bigotry -- unvarnished, raw, shocking. Equating Reid’s remarks with Lott’s is utterly ridiculous, and those who are doing so for political gain ought to be ashamed of themselves.

But what about that second point. Is there a double-standard when it comes to racially insensitive remarks? Is a Republican who says something stupid more likely to be accused of racism than a Democrat who does the same?
To paraphrase Fox News’ newest analyst, “You betchya!”

My question is, why shouldn’t they be?

Let’s look at Reid and Lott again. Reid has been a stalwart supporter of Civil Rights throughout his career. He has been a supporter of affirmative action, of Federal hate crimes legistation, of aid to minority and women owned small businesses. His voting record rating from the NAACP is consistently above 90%.

Trent Lott, on the other hand, opposed the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, opposed affirmative action, and opposed renewal of both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. The NAACP consistently rated him well below twenty percent.

Is it any wonder that progressive African-Americans are more inclined to give Reid the benefit of the doubt on this occasion? Even if you think his remarks are offensive, there can be no denying that they stand at odds with everything he has stood and fought for in his years of public service. On the other hand, Lott’s remarks, even if cast in the most favorable light possible, reinforced his longstanding record as an opponent of racial justice and equality. There is a double standard. Absolutely. By consistently positioning themselves against Civil Rights over the past forty years, Republicans have earned it and then some.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 12th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
I think explaining in that manner - that it's not hypocritical - is acceptable. I certainly think it was an idiotic thing for Reid to say. The main problem I have with his defense is the idea that it was perfectly ok because he wasn't somehow giving his own views but what white america thought instead. That excuse doesn't hold water and is offensive in itself. Own it Harry. You said it. He apologized and people will forgive him or not. People like nothing better than to point out hypocrisy even when they're ten times more hypocritical. Reid probably wasn't going to be re-elected even before this and this certainly didn't help his chances.
Jan. 12th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I guess I have less trouble with it than you do. His wording sucked, clearly. But what he said, was a) said in private, and b) totally true. I just don't see what the problem is, aside from the use of the phrase "Negro dialect." The fact is he WAS talking about White America, just as I was in my post when I said that he was right. The fact is that White America was leery of embracing this African-American candidate, and he's about as non-threatening to whites as any candidate of color could have been. Again, I just don't see the problem, particularly when compared with what Lott said.
Jan. 13th, 2010 01:35 am (UTC)
Fair enough.

"Totally true": Possibly. Why would anyone elect an inarticulate street thug (of any race) for President? But, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, even in a private conversation, should have more sense that to voice it that way.

Also, I see that the census will contain the word "Negro" as part of the African-American category. Who thought that was a good idea? Apparently, they'll still a lot of people out there using that term about themselves. What? Are they over 100?

Another commentor wrote: "We wanted Barack Obama but we would have had one heck of a time getting him if he wasn't half white"

I'm not sure what the numbers are but I'd guess they'd be pretty small for those who voted for him because he was half-white. Did they see him as less threatening, more "articulate", and therefore less black? Yikes! We got a long way to go even with after electing a black man President...
Jan. 13th, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)
>>I'm not sure what the numbers are but I'd guess they'd be pretty small for those who voted for him because he was half-white. Did they see him as less threatening, more "articulate", and therefore less black? Yikes! We got a long way to go even with after electing a black man President...<<

Yeah, I don't think she was saying that people voted for him because he was half white, but rather that people were willing to vote for the black candidate because he was not a "threatening" black man, and that this was a function of him being mixed race. And that is very sad....
Jan. 12th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)
Lott was pining away for the good ol' days of segregation when People of Color had separate drinking fountains and knew their place. Senator Reid used a term that was unfortunate, but not in the same league.

RepubliKans can shriek all they want. There's a damn good reason their party is viewed as being racially intolerant. Mainly, because that's the default position they operate from, along with a healthy dose of xenophobia, fear, and unreasoning hatred.

That's who the RepubliKans are. And all the whining they do in the world isn't ever going to change that reality.
Jan. 12th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
I agree with you, Mark (not surprising, I know). I'm particularly struck by the fact that the people who are rushing to condemn Reid are (aside from Michael Steele) folks like John Cornyn, with his 6% rating from the NAACP, and John McCain who is notorious for having opposed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday when it was first proposed. They're equating Reid with Lott for political reasons, but maybe they're also doing it because they're just that stupid and out of touch with racial realities. Maybe they don't see a difference. To be honest, that idea terrifies me....
Jan. 12th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
First of all, well said! If only politics were the art of telling it like it is, and not the art of spinning it like a top, someone who thinks like you did here would have the shiny new job at Fox.

I can't even tell you how many people around here have commented that we were fortunate Barack Obama is mixed race because darn it, we wanted him elected and we know how things stand. Yeah, that is the sort of thing it's better to just know in the privacy of your own head and not say aloud, but true is true. It's insensitive, but it's not racist to acknowledge that racism exists and effects how people vote. Pretending it doesn't to make ourselves sound like we're above it all as a country is inauthentic to say the least. We wanted Barack Obama but we would have had one heck of a time getting him if he wasn't half white. That's the way it is.
Jan. 12th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Gina. There is a quote I've been trying to remember all day long; something to the effect that Republicans get in trouble when the speak their minds and Democrats get in trouble when they speak the truth. Certainly applies to this.
Jan. 15th, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)
Well said!
While it’s true our actions speak louder than our words, those same actions can also augment our words making them louder, sometimes louder than we intended and sometimes louder than they deserve to be.
Jan. 15th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Well said!
Thanks for the comment! Rhetoric and action reinforce each other. And yes, when poor rhetoric reinforces negative actions, the effect is powerful.
Jan. 15th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
Exccept the fact that it was the Republicans who passed the Civil Rights Act. It was the Republicans who ended slavery and extended Voting Rights to former slaves.

These are things that seem to be forgotten by folks these days.

Jan. 15th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
Yes, Lincoln, a Republican, ended slavery, and Republicans in the Reconstruction Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments extending rights to former slaves. The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts were passed in 1964 and 1965, and they were intended to end the remnants of Jim Crow. They were shepherded through Congress by a Democratic President (Lyndon Johnson) but they did have substantial support from moderate Republicans as well as liberal Democrats. The main opponents were Southern Democrats and conservative Western Republicans. So those two laws were truly bipartisan.

The reason people forget that moderate members of the GOP (Jacob Javits, Lowell Weicker, Nelson Rockefeller, for example) used to be strong allies of the Civil Rights movement is that a) the "moderate" Republican is now extinct, and b) the modern GOP, at least with respect to its Congressional/Senatorial membership, has made itself the party of racial and social intolerance. There are no Republicans left who champion Civil Rights. And it's largely demographic. The conservative Southern Democrat has also largely disappeared, mostly because they have become conservative Southern Republicans. The South has gone from being overwhelmingly "blue" to being overwhelmingly "red". The attitudes represented by the South's elected officials haven't changed very much, but they have switched parties.
Jan. 15th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
There is no proof of ralical intolerance in the Republican Party. Ever ehar names such as Condelezza Rice, JC Watts,Clarence Thomas, and Colin Powell? Michael Steele is black and is the Leader of Republican National Party.

As for Social intolerence, the only that they are intolerant of is wasting money which the Democrats love to do.
Jan. 15th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
>>Ever ehar names such as Condelezza Rice, JC Watts,Clarence Thomas, and Colin Powell? Michael Steele is black and is the Leader of Republican National Party.<<

Ah, the "Some of my best friends are African-Americans" argument... Might want to take Colin Powell off that list. Having a few high profile African-Americans doesn't change the fact that the GOP has been opposed to every major piece of Civil Rights legislation over the past thirty years. And social intolerance would cover the frothing-at-the-mouth opposition nearly every elected Republican voices for any type of social justice for homosexuals.
Jan. 16th, 2010 06:28 am (UTC)
What pieces of major Civil Rights legislation are you speaking of? (yeah I know that's bad english *grin*)

The last 30 years would be from 1980 until now. I can't think of any major pieces of Civil Rights legislation since 1980.

Jan. 16th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
There have been lots, actually, including (but not limited to) the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act (which, like many pieces of legislation, were written with so-called sunset dates built in and needed to be re-upped by Congress), the King holiday bill (which was a huge deal at the time), various measures dealing with affirmative action, federal aid to minority-owned businesses, fair housing bills, fair employment bills. I don't have the expertise to name them all, but if you go to the NAACP or Urban League sites you might be able to find more details. I know that the NAACP rates Senators and Congressmen based on votes, so they must have a list of Civil Rights legislation.
Jan. 17th, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)
It's me again, the pesky neighborhood Conservative. *grin*
I don't mean to drag the conversation out, but I do love a good debate

Could it be that Republicans are not so much anti-minority as anti-preferred treatment for any race? Republicans have not tried to reinstitute Segregation or take away someone's Right to Vote. They argue instead that we have progressed as a nation to the point where artificially tilting the playing field in favor of a certain race is not needed. In short, those bills had outlived their usefulness and were no longer needed.

So you see, Republicans are not so much as "racist" than as "race neutral". Wasn't that the dream of Dr. King in Washington?
Jan. 17th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the good discussion, Mark.

I've heard that argument before, and I believe that there are some elected Republicans who feel this way. But facts are pesky things: Unemployment remains proportionally higher among African-Americans than whites. So do dropout rates. Poverty rates. Infant mortality rates. Incarceration rates. Homelessness. Addiction. Basically, every economic and social indicator we have tells us that we have yet to reach the important goal of equality of opportunity in this country. Add to that the fact that people of color are far more likely to be stopped, harassed, and abused by the police; that schools, medical clinics, and other social services are far more likely to be underfunded in predominantly African-American communities than in predominantly white communities (conservatives often point to the exceptions here -- the fact that NYC and DC city schools are overfunded to no effect -- and though this is true, these are the exceptions. Look elsewhere in the country, particularly in rural Southern communities, and just the opposite is true with respect to schools, and the medical care disparity is true everywhere); even that, come election time, the per capita availability of voting machines is widely disproportionate in favor of whites, and you find that we have not yet created that race-neutral society. So these measures are still necessary, in my opinion, and in missing this, elected GOP officials are either ignorant of the facts or willfully neglectful of them.
Jan. 18th, 2010 11:33 am (UTC)
I guess we have come to an impass, my friend. *smile* I won't keep you from your awsome work (I want to read your next book so I don't want to keep you tied up) except to say...

You see the playing field as tilted against minorities due to racial reasons. I agree that there may still be inequalities but I think chalking them up to race is an oversimplification. I think that there are other factors at play such as economic, educational, and familial which are at play here too.

So a solution based solely upon race would not solve problems only partially rooted in race. It would need to encompass all the factors involved.

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


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