A new book released today, Game Change by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heileman, contains a number of fascinating quotes and tidbits surrounding the 2008 Presidential campaign, including a major verbal gaffe of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaking of President Obama. Like Vice President Joe Biden, Reid is quoted in the book at being supportive of Obama’s candidacy because he is a “light-skinned” black man “with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”
President Obama has accepted Reid’s apology, which the Majority Leader called “a poor choice of words.” Al Sharpton has put his blessing on Reid’s contrition, however little that’s worth. I have to agree with some of Reid’s defenders in that we can jump the gun a little too easily when it comes to racial matters, and one word or phrase does not automatically initiate one into the Ku Klux Klan.
But here’s the problem I have with a quite rational willingness to shrug off Reid’s comments as a momentary lapse in judgment. I close my eyes and imagine the media landscape today if instead of Harry Reid, Sarah Palin or John Boehner had made the exact same comment. Would we see a quick acceptance of an apology by President Obama? Would we see Al Sharpton and the Congressional Black Caucus sticking up for them? I somehow doubt it.
This is the main reason the dialogue on race will be forever mired in a rhetorical quagmire – a very legitimate discussion has been hijacked for pure partisan advantage. It seems that whenever the subject of race arises, the first fact taken into consideration isn’t the argument or the remark, it’s the political party or political beliefs of the speaker. Had a prominent conservative or Republican made exactly the same statement, it would be taken as gospel evidence of a secret racism that all right-leaning Americans supposedly harbor in their heart of hearts. But make the speaker a Democrat and pooh-poohing rationalizations are offered instead, with even Rep. James Clyburn stating that, hey, there’s really nothing wrong with the word “negro.” (Just try and use it, though, if you aren’t of Clyburn’s political leanings.)
This is why I can’t let Reid’s comment go – not because it’s particularly outrageous, but because the reaction to it speaks to a divide on racial issues borne strictly out of partisan political considerations. Those who cry “racist!” at the next person who has a problem with Obama’s foreign policy or health care proposals will have little credibility to stand on if they fail to muster up the same outrage for those whose political interests align with their own.
We need to have an honest discussion about race, and we need to stop being over-sensitive about every little comment that is uttered. But as long as so many are willing to use race as a wedge issue for political advantage, we’re not going to get that discussion, and in its place will be more brow-beating and adherence to some politically correct double standard that doesn’t help anyone. Left in the dust will be common sense, civility, and the chance to build real bridges, but those aren’t as important as the ability to wield a racial cudgel over your political foes.