Friday, June 21, 2024

Here we go again: another dumb conversation about race…

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( I’ve resisted the temptation to write anything about the Harry Reid “controversy” for the past few days, but I have a couple of things to say. First, some of us need to step back and check ourselves before we criticize Reid, and second, some of these Republicans are still completely clueless about race.

First, for the record, I don’t see anything wrong with what Harry Reid said. It doesn’t matter to me if a black person said it or a white person said it. And it doesn’t matter if the speaker is a Democrat or Republican.

Reid was simply speaking what Lani Guinier called an “unfortunate truth” about race. In America today, lighter-skinned blacks and those who speak the “Queen’s English” are more likely to be accepted in mainstream society than those who don’t.

I know from experience. If I were darker skinned and didn’t “speak well,” I probably wouldn’t be a TV commentator. And it also helps that I’m a man, as Jasmyne Cannick points out in her column today.

Let’s not kid ourselves. America, like all other countries, is still plagued by prejudice based on race, gender, class, looks, skin color, and even speaking ability. Those who deny it are liars or rabble rousers, and either way they’re not worth the time of a response.

But given the other recent “controversy” over the Census Bureau’s use of the term “Negro,” some observers were reportedly stung by the news that Reid had used the somewhat antiquated term himself. Negro is an old term for most blacks today, but I think Reid was simply making the obvious point that Obama doesn’t speak like an “old Negro.” Listen to Jesse and Al, and then listen to Barack, and you’ll hear the difference.

I have great respect for Rev. Jackson and Rev. Sharpton, but neither one of those guys could ever get elected President of the United States. Obama could because he didn’t look like or sound like an old school civil rights leader. That may not be fair, but it’s the truth.

Reid said the same thing blacks were saying

Reid didn’t use the (also antiquated) term “colored,” which the NAACP still bears in its official name, and he didn’t use the offensive N word that many blacks don’t like to hear from whites. All he did was to say the same thing that a lot of black people themselves were saying two years ago.

I’ve known Barack Obama since 1990, when we were in law school together, and even then I think some blacks didn’t really know how to take him. Here was a tall skinny guy with a non-traditional African American name who made a name for himself by rising to the top position at the mostly white Harvard Law Review.

By the time Obama decided to run for president in 2007 and challenge a candidate who was already well known and well liked by blacks, some African Americans were openly suspicious. He didn’t come from us, didn’t talk like us and didn’t understand us, the critics said back then. Even after Obama entered the race, polls showed more blacks supported Hillary Clinton than the newcomer from Illinois.

So let’s not kid ourselves and pretend Harry Reid didn’t say the same thing that many blacks were saying and thinking to themselves during the presidential campaign, which by the way, is when Reid made his remarks that have been recently unearthed for the new book Game Change.

Not the same as Trent Lott

That brings me to my second and final point. The Republicans have no shame. The same guys in the GOP who routinely defend Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and all their racial hyperbole now come to us with the audacity to feign offense at mild-mannered Harry Reid. Something doesn’t add up here.

As I have defended Reid in my public comments lately, some Republicans have accused me and other black Democrats of hypocrisy, arguing that I wouldn’t be saying the same thing if Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had made those remarks.

Actually, I would. I don’t believe in wasting my time on faux indignation when there are real instances that deserve my indignation. And the idea that I would check my racial beliefs at the entry door of the Democratic Headquarters is offensive. Just because I’m a Democrat doesn’t mean I wouldn’t call out a fellow Democrat for racism. I did not support the white Democratic mayoral candidate here in New York a few years ago because he made comments that I thought were racially offensive. Blacks aren’t all so beholden to the Democratic Party that we will excuse real racism from Democratic officials. Try telling that to the media.

Some Republicans argue that Harry Reid’s comments are no different from Trent Lott’s comments a few years ago that led to his removal from the Senate Majority Leader post. Nothing could be further from the truth. While both comments were racial, they were not both racist.

Trent Lott openly lauded segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as a racial segregationist in 1948. “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,” Lott said.

On the one hand, you have a poltician supporting a guy who would have kept black people in segregated buses on their way to segregated schools in a world where they could drink from blacks-only water fountains. On the other hand, you have a politician who used the word “Negro.”

Harry Reid’s remark was racial, not racist. Trent Lott’s comments, on the other hand, were racist. There’s a difference.

Maybe the GOP doesn’t see the difference. Maybe that’s why they trotted out their first black chairman, Michael Steele, to respond. But Michael Steele himself is an example of everything the Republicans don’t understand about diversity.

When Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court, President George Bush overlooked dozens of more qualified candidates and appointed Clarence Thomas, a black conservative, and claimed that race was not a factor in his decision. He just coincidentally picked a black person to replace a black person.

And when Barack Obama became the first black president last year, Republicans quickly and coincidentally picked a black Republican to lead the RNC. Similarly, after Hillary Clinton struck a nerve by winning 18 million votes in the Democratic Primary in 2008, GOP presidential nominee John McCain coincidentally picked a clearly unqualified female candidate to be his running mate.

For too many Republican leaders, race is just a shell game. You put up a black shell, and they put up a black shell. You put up a female shell, and they put up a female shell. The focus is only the shell, not the substance underneath.

And that’s why Republicans will never understand African Americans and Latinos and other groups until they learn to appreciate diversity and stop using it solely as a political device.

Written By Keith Boykin

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