Seeing in Color

Race, prejudice, and the hidden thoughts that shape our politics.

Reporting Social Facts vs. Pining for Jim Crow: No Comparison Between Reid and Lott

Are Harry Reid's comments about Obama racist?

Imagine a scenario. An African American lawyer, we can even call him "Barry," has applied for a job at a prestigious firm—one that has never before hired a Black person. You eavesdrop on a couple of partners talking about the candidate. Question: Which, if either, of the these overheard comments is the more racist?

"I don't know... Barry's facing an uphill climb at an all-White firm like this. However, he just might have a shot given the fact that he's fairly light-complected and doesn't speak using African American Vernacular English."

"This firm's going to hell if it hires a Black guy. I wish Strom Thurmond were the head of the hiring committee."

The analogy may be a bit crude. But those paying attention to recent political news will recognize the partners as stand-ins for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Senator (and Majority Leader) Trent Lott, respectively. Senator Reid has found himself in hot water for comments he made in 2008 assessing Barack Obama's chances of winning the presidency. Republicans, in particular, have decried Reid's "racist" comments, demanding that he apologize to the American people and relinquish his leadership position in the Senate. They insist that this is exactly what happened to their own Trent Lott in 2002. Let's take a look at what Reid and Lott said:

Reid told the authors of a new book about the 2008 campaign that "the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a ‘light-skinned' African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'"

Lott toasted the late Strom Thurmond by saying, "When [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 the years, either."

Interestingly, I haven't read or heard a single commentator dispute the accuracy of what Reid said. I've heard many say—and I agree—that his comments were indelicate and his use of the term "Negro" anachronistic. Politically stupid, yes. But also true. Anti-Black racism is alive and well in our country, and there is good evidence that it affected voting patterns in the 2008 election and continues to shape attitudes toward President Obama's policies. It is entirely plausible that the ways in which Obama doesn't fit most Americans' stereotype of "Black person" (itself a media-perpetuated caricature) mitigated the high electoral hurdles he faced. More to the point, the social-psychological literature on "colorism"—the tendency of lighter-skinned Blacks to be viewed and treated more positively than those with darker skin—corroborates Reid's prediction that Obama would have a relatively good shot at the presidency. There is no incompatibility between the content of Reid's observation and having perfectly progressive racial views.

What about Lott's comments? In waxing nostalgic over Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run, Lott is endorsing the politics of a segregationist firebrand who, as Senator, filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes. One can't read Lott's comments without suspecting that the "problems" he believes President Thurmond would have prevented include things like racial integration and equality under the law. Now that strikes me as racist, and for Republicans to liken Reid's comment to Lott's—and to imply that they should suffer similar fates—is silly.

This episode says a great deal about how Americans talk (or fail to talk) about race. Most illustrative were comments made by Liz Cheney on ABC's This Week. Ms. Cheney found herself sparring with, of all people, conservative commentator George Will over the Reid affair. Cheney contended that Reid's comments were "outrageous" and "racist." When Will countered that Reid's comments contained "not a scintilla of racism," Cheney responded—and this is telling—"George, give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president's skin..." For Cheney, the mere mention of race is tantamount to racism. It's worth pausing to appreciate how pernicious this extreme form of color-blindness is. If we can't talk about race, we can't talk about racial inequality—and if we can't talk about racial inequality, we're guaranteed not to do anything about it. Perhaps this is exactly what some people want.

Eric Knowles is an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at University of California at Irvine.

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