Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Harry Reid and the Negro

There's much ado and much hilarity over the far right's newfound love of political correctness and their usual fake "outrage" over two year old remarks from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comments in a new book.  The comments in question were Reid's musings that Obama would do well in 2008 because he was "light skinned" and "didn't speak in a Negro dialect unless he wanted to."  Or something like that.

Anyhow, what the right has seized on is Reid's use of the word "Negro" like he'd made some sort of racist remark and now the right thinks it is off the hook for their regular racism.  I hate to disappoint them on this but:

  1. They are still responsible for their racism, and
  2. "Negro" isn't necessarily a derogatory term towards black people.
Negro is certainly an outdated term but, like 70-year-old Reid, I'm old enough to remember when the term was considered respectful, at least by whites.  It was certainly a step up from the "colored" and "nigger" terms used by whites in the days prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s.  Those were also the days when dark-hued people were considered inferior, genetically stupid, criminal and unattractive by the majority white population to self-justify discriminating against them.  I think we're all pretty familiar with what's happened since those days.

I'm also saying all of this from my own whiteness so put it all down as conjecture.  It'd be more than a little presumptive for me to declare what offends people of color and what doesn't.

However, I just don't get the kind of vibes from Reid and his record in politics that he is someone who would deliberately choose to denigrate black people.

What's a burr in everybody's saddle, left or right, is that once you get over the word usage what remains is that what white, old Mormon Harry Reid said was right on the money.  The right denies it outright and the left wishes it weren't so but the fact remains that if Barack Obama had looked like Jesse Jackson and sounded like Snoop Dogg he would never have won the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency.  It's an uncomfortable truth but truth nonetheless.  It's also a reflection of where we are when it comes to race in America that such superficialities still affect our votes.  Now that Obama has broken the color barrier when it comes to the White House, maybe later another candidate for President who looks and sounds "more black" (or "more Hispanic" or Asian) won't find the road to the White House to be harder simply because of the darker hue of his or her skin and how he/she speaks.

That being said, let's return to our friends on the right who have been trying so hard to make this an "issue."

First of all, their main position on the Reid thing is that a Democrat is getting away with a remark that a Republican would be crucified over.  I think they're right on this too, but there's a very big "if" attached to it.  That being, if Harry Reid had said something along the lines of Obama won despite his being a "dirty Negro" or something like that and wasn't hounded out of at least his leadership post if not his Senate seat it'd be a point well taken.  Reid said nothing like that so, sorry righties but that one doesn't fly too far.  Even some Republicans have defended Reid over this (most recently Rudy Giuliani) and the Republican Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that the Republicans would not pursue trying to oust Reid from anything.

This hasn't stopped the usual suspects, namely rightwing radio haters like Rush Limbaugh and cable TV's version of rightwing radio - Fox Noise - from beating the drum over it and their followers gleefully proclaiming that since Reid 'got away' with what he said they are now immune from any charge of racial prejudice.  Sorry GOPbaggers, but the next time you make some racist remark or post some picture like the one morphing President Obama into a witch doctor, you're going to find using Harry Reid to protect you as about as effective as a shield made from single sheets of printer paper glued to pipe cleaners.

The other front from the right is that they are trying just as hard to say that what Republican Trent Lott said back in the Bush era was "just as bad or not bad" as what Reid said in 2008, but he was forced out of his leadership post where Reid is keeping his.  This is supposedly proof of liberal and Democratic Party "hypocrisy" since we forced Lott out.

Let's review just what Lott did say and what he meant by it, shall we?  From an article from 2002....

The incredible thing about the controversy surrounding soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's kissing up to the racist legacy of Strom Thurmond is that anyone thinks it is incredible.
Trent Lott's "Uptown Klan"

Lott is on the hot seat for telling a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who in 1948 ran an overtly racist campaign for president on the State's Rights Party ticket: "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."

Those remarks have caused a major stir, which is appropriate. But this is hardly the first time that Lott, who began his political career in the 1960s as an aide to segregationist Democratic Congressman William Colmer, has hailed the legacy of those who fought to defend the practices of slavery and segregation. Nor is the tortured "apology" Lott has issued the first to come from the senator.

Indeed, there is no greater constant in Trent Lott's political career than his embrace of all things Confederate.

To wit:

* In 1978, after his election to the US House, Lott led a successful campaign to have the US citizenship of Jefferson Davis restored. Davis lost his citizenship when he became president of the Confederate States of America when southern states were in open revolt against the US government.

* During the 1980 campaign, after Thurmond spoke at a Mississippi rally for Ronald Reagan, Lott said of the old Dixiecrat: "You know, if we had elected that man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."

* In 1981, when he was lending his prestige as a member of the US Congress to an effort to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University -- the notorious South Carolina college that was under fire for prohibiting interracial dating -- Lott insisted that, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."

* Despite the fact that he represents the state with the largest percentage of African-American citizens in the US, Lott has throughout his career been an active supporter of the Sons of the Confederacy, a group that celebrates the soldiers who fought to defend the "right" of Mississippians to own African-Americans as slaves." Lott even appears in recruitment videos for the group.

* Speaking at a 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lott declared that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform." Asked to explain his statement in an interview with the extreme rightwing publication Southern Partisan, Lott said, "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party... and more of The South's sons, Jefferson Davis' descendants, direct or indirect, are becoming involved with the Republican party."

* Lott gave the keynote address at a 1992 national executive board meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor organization to the old white Citizens Councils, segregation-era groups the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as "the white-collar Ku Klux Klan. The C of CC may have changed its name, but it remains a passionate "white racialist" group that condemns intermarriage, integration and immigration by non-whites. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who has researched the group, argues, "There is no question of the resegregationist agenda of the Council of Conservative Citizens when four of the seven links listed on the home page for former Klan leader David Duke link back to the Council of Conservative Citizens." Other links, Jackson has noted, "deny the Holocaust and sell T-shirts with swastikas and Nazi stormtrooper symbols." But when Lott appeared at that Greenwood, Mississippi, meeting of C of CC leaders, he did not address his disdain for racism or anti-Semitism. Rather, he discussed his concerns about "the dark forces" that he said were overwhelming America and said, "We need more meetings like this across the nation... The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries."

* In 1997, Lott was photographed meeting with national leaders of the C of CC in his Washington office. At his side were two prominent C of CC leaders: Gordon Baum, a former field organizer for the Citizens Councils in the days when they were referred to as the "uptown Klan," and William Lord, who has acknowledged using the mailing lists of the Citizens Councils to build the C of CC in the 1980s and 1990s. That same year, the C of CC used an endorsement quote from Lott in recruitment literature.

* When the Washington Post began to detail Lott's ties to the C of CC, his office announced that he had "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views." But when The New York Times asked Lott's uncle, former Mississippi state Sen. Arnie Watson, a member of the C of CC executive board, about ties between the senator and the organization, Watson said, "Trent is an honorary member." When a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger showed up at a 1998 C of CC meeting in Mississippi, he was told by those in attendance that Lott was a member. Lott's office never challenged the report when it appeared in his homestate's largest newspaper. But a year later, when the Washington Post took the issue up, Lott said, "I have made my condemnation of the white supremacist and racist view of this group, or any group, clear."

* Yet, a column written by Lott still appeared on a regular basis in the Citizens Informer, the group's publication, alongside articles thick with statements like: "Western civilization, with all its might and glory, would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race. Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself."

* Go to the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens today and you will find, beneath the Confederate flag and the section attacking an African-American professor at Vanderbilt, a big smiling picture of the Mississippi senator next to headlines that read: "A Lott of Courage!" "C of CC Passes Resolution Commending Lott" and "Lott Needs Your Support."

When he started to face questions about his most recent praise of Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign, Lott initially said that his remarks were just part of "a lighthearted celebration" of the retiring segregationist's career. That was enough for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, to give Lott an initial pass. But, thankfully, Julian Bond and the NAACP, and a few African-American and progressive members of the House, refused to allow the matter to die. Only under this lingering pressure did Lott sort of apologize by saying of his statement at the Thurmond bash: "I regret the way it has been interpreted."

That's the standard line from Lott, who always apologizes when he gets caught defending the defenders of slavery and segregation. But, so far, Lott has never failed to follow each "apology" with another tribute to the Confederacy or the segregationists who seek even in the 21st century to maintain the racist legacy of Jefferson Davis, Strom Thurmond and the "uptown Klan."

Why, all of that must be JUST LIKE Reid and what he said!!  Yeah, right.

Another problem with the claim that Democrats and liberals forced Lott out of his leadership post:  Democrats were the minority party in the Senate at the time and didn't have the votes to force anyone to do anything at the time.  In fact, there is more evidence that the Bush Republicans wanted Lott out because he wasn't that effective a leader for them in the Senate and latched on to the remarks Lott made as the means to do that than any liberal group's protestations.

Ooops.  Another GOP FAIL.

So what lessons do we take away from this?  First of all, don't try to make mountains out of molehills - this just wasn't that big a deal.  Secondarily, if you are in public life, choose your words carefully - you may have to eat them later. 

Finally, if you are in a position of high visibility and you have the chance to make some racial remark - don't.  It's still too tender a subject in America for any real discussion of racial issues, and that's the worst thing about all of this.

1 comment:

James said...

Negro is certainly an outdated term but, like 70-year-old Reid, I'm old enough to remember when the term was considered respectful, at least by whites.

You're quite right about this, and I'd go even further.

"Negro" was considered respectful by most whites and blacks until the 1970s, and the reason was that Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had argued strongly that "Negro" was the best, most respectful term for blacks. This is why the term "Negro" was adopted back in the 1920s.

Of course, the word then fell out of favor, basically because it became associated with the pre-Civil Rights era. And good riddance!