In his State of the Union response to Pres. George W. Bush a few years ago, Harry Reid included a heartwarming anecdote about a kid in his old hometown saying he wants to grow up to be like him. Did the ten-year-old realize that he, too, could be charmless and inarticulate and still be an awesomely powerful politician?
The furor over Reid’s comments about then-candidate Barack Obama being “light-skinned” and not speaking in “a Negro dialect” says less about the Senate majority leader’s racial attitudes than his already well-advertised tin — or is it iron? titanium? some metallic substance yet unknown to man? — ear. If nuance and verbal intelligence were necessary to success on Capitol Hill, Reid would have quit long ago.
But since when is a history of saying dumb things a defense in a racial controversy? Since when is the truth even a defense?
TheRoot.com, the website of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor last seen accusing a white cop of racism for the offense of showing up at his door, published an elaborate defense of Reid. It cited the 1993 paper “When White Voters Evaluate Black Candidates: The Processing Implications of Candidate Skin Color, Prejudice, and Self-Monitoring” to support Reid’s contention that Obama’s lightness would help him with voters. As for “Negro dialect,” TheRoot.com argues it’s a catchier phrase than “black or African-American vernacular English,” and what harm comes from “using dated language with no bad intent”?
No conservative Republican should test this tolerance for archaic speech. Reid’s idiocy is excused, fundamentally, by his political positions. In absolving him, Obama cited “the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice.” Al Sharpton, who’s built a career on stoking distracting racial controversies, advised that “these comments should not distract America from its continued focus on securing health care.”
Real racism has been almost entirely eliminated from respectable American public life. With no one defending segregated lunch counters anymore, the accusation of racism is left mostly to hang on infelicitous phrases, legitimate policy disagreements, or the airing of uncomfortable truths.
That means the charge has become unavoidably subjective, and those with the most credibility to make it — black politicians and civil-rights groups — all lean to the left. They’ve turned it into a handy political tool wielded only against their opponents. Reid could practically perform in a minstrel show, and the NAACP would defend him as long as he remained a reliably liberal vote.
It isn’t just that Reid is treated differently than Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott, whose disastrously foolish praise of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential campaign spiraled into his resignation from leadership. It’s that the Left read more meaning into a minor candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee distributing a CD with a parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro” than into Reid’s earnest use of the term. It’s that there was more outrage on the left over fabricated Rush Limbaugh quotes endorsing slavery than over comments Reid doesn’t deny making.
The fraudulent Rush quotes illustrate the next logical step in the charade: Accusing someone of racism based on the belief that the person somehow should be racist. The anti-Obamacare protests of the summer had racial motives attributed to them, even though they were notably absent of racial content. One protester who ostentatiously carried his rifle outside an Obama event in Phoenix was deemed a racist threat to the president, even though he himself was black.
Taking the Reid flap to its absurdist conclusion, The Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates concluded that GOP objections to Reid’s comments themselves prove “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.” Maybe one of Reid’s Republican critics can be made to resign for his insensitive criticisms.
Most racial controversies are eventually described as “teachable moments.” If only the lesson of this one were that the politicized game of taking racial offense deserves permanent retirement.