Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thoughts on the Harry Reid Controversy

The outrage over Harry Reid's racist comments is actually one of the more interesting controversies I've heard about in awhile.

I'm not aiming to give him a full defense, but rather I find that with a little analysis and thought, there are a few things about this controversy that are curious and worth contemplating more than mere voter points. Let's look at the quote from Halperin's book that keeps circling around:
He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed 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," as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.
First let us address the context statement and form of it's offense, then move on to the specific language. What we know about the context of this is that it was said in private; it wasn't a speech or a formal interview. I don't note that because of some acceptance of a politician's personal racism behind doors, but rather because this was something said during the champaign. Rather formal or informal, Reid appears to have been providing campaign analysis on how, 'the country' would respond to Obama, not necessarily how he felt about him. It was an opinion of how voters would react to Obama as a black candidate and why.

This is the problem with comparing it to, say, Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball controversy. The offense comes in a different form, closer actually to the John Kerry on Iraq goof. It isn't that Reid says something offensive towards Obama through which the country responds; it's that Reid says something offensive through Obama towards the country, which then responds. As Kerry, in talking about Bush, ended up (accidentally) implying that American troops were basically dumb highschool drop-outs, Reid in discussing Obama's race as a factor implied that most of the nation is essentially racist. Both for being influenced by race at all and in how.

Something being an opinion in no way relieves it from being offensive or racist, and even if the form differs the content can backfire, which brings us to the language. We have only two direct quotes to examine, that Obama is "light-skinned" and, "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Again, as presented by Halperin, Reid is essentially saying that 'America is ready for a black president... especially one that isn't too black.' Obama certainly doesn't fall into the stereo-type of liberal 'political blackness', personified by Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson. For all their popularity, neither are strong candidates, but Obama dosen't talk as they do, or act as they do. He is a very different kind of politician from them, if anything perhaps closer to Shirley Chrisholm. However, there is still the word choice. Who on earth still uses the word "Negro"??? If he does mean "Negro dialect" in reference to other black candidates like Sharpton, is it too extreme to say he might as well be calling them monkeys?

This use of Negro to me is the core of Reid's folly with regard to being accused as racist. While not a racial slur, it's a loaded word, an old word with a lot of history. Though, what word should he have used? Black dialect? That's obviously too broad, too many dialects. Low in-come urban/rural dialect? Ah! Dialect is a problem too.

Like Karry, he's wondered into a class tension. Obama isn't acceptable merely because he's not 'too black' but also because he isn't too poor and uneducated. In a weird uneven way, isn't it basically that he's 'white' enough? While it's still projected as what "the country" thinks, we are left still with the monkey angle, which cannot be excused. If one says, 'all these racists aren't ready to treat these monkeys equally', they're still calling someone a monkey. This is specifically what he should be held at fault for, if he isn't. But I think we shouldn't ignore the larger implication of his statement.

The big curiosity of this for me is that Reid has given us an opinion on a very frequently talked about issues of the election: will Obama's race be a factor? Were not many of Obama's critics frequently bringing up that the appeal of finally having a black president was overshadowing the issues, that some people were voting for him because he was black? Were not many who voted for him happy he won because he was black?--alright, perhaps not exclusively, but in part because he was black? I couldn't help but be happy during the inauguration speech, thinking that a whole generation of black children were going to grow up with evidence that their skin would not be an obstacle between them and the highest office in the country. There were other issues, of course, but it certainly was a factor. It was an obstacle for voters looked beyond, for there is in its best intentions a certain reverse racism to it. Which is what I find particularly fascinating about Brian Walsh's statement.
For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them. Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long history of embarrassing and controversial remarks by the senior Senator from Nevada. He always shares exactly what's on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it's one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent Senator in either party facing re-election.
In no way does Walsh say racism is ok, but isn't that last sentence odd? "He always shares exactly what's on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it's one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent Senator in either party facing re-election." Is what is on his mind really the problem, or is it that he says it? When people talk about a color-blind nation, it always sounds so nice and Utopian, but I can't help but wonder if it is a place where racism is broken down and dissolved or a place where it is repressed--or worse, persists in denial. Would a color-blind nation have no racial injustice, or would it simply not see it? In short, after so much talk about Obama's race, is Reid's comment outragious because of it's poor and loaded word choice or because of its implications about society and the voters that make it up? Furthermore, is it upsetting because of how obviously false it is, or because on some level, there's a small element of truth to it? At the risk of sounding contradictory (and slightly pessimistic), I can't help detect in out general fixation on his race, the likely answer. For me, this is the thing to walk away from this pondering.


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