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Reid and Lott

The big toxic political news coming out of the weekend was the revelation, retailed in a new 2008 campaign book, that Harry Reid once speculated that Barack Obama might be electable as president because he was "light-skinned" and didn't speak with a "Negro dialect." Republicans immediately started demanding that Reid resign as Democratic Majority Leader, with many claiming his reported remarks were the equivalent of Trent Lott's infamous wish-he-had-been-president praise for Strom Thurmond in 2002.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has the most sensible comment about Reid's remarks and particularly the comparisons to Lott:

I think you can grant that, in this era, the term "Negro dialect" is racially insensitive and embarrassing. That said, the fair-mind listener understands the argument--Barack Obama's complexion and his ability to code-switch is an asset. You can quibble about the "light skin" part, but forget running for president, code-switching is the standard M.O. for any African American with middle class aspirations.

But there's no such defense for Trent Lott. Lott celebrated apartheid Mississippi's support of Strom Thurmond, and then said that had Thurmond won, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years.'' Strom Thurmond run for president, specifically because he opposed Harry Truman's efforts at integration. This is not mere conjecture--nearly half of Thurmond's platform was dedicated to preserving segregation. The Dixiecrat slogan was "Segregation Forever!" (Exclamation point, theirs.) Trent Lott's wasn't forced to resign because he said something "racially insensitive." He was forced to resign because he offered tacit endorsement of white supremacy--frequently.

Claiming that Harry Reid's comments are the same, is like claiming that referring to Jews as "Hebrews" is the same as endorsing Nazism.

All I'll add is a guess that Reid's use of the word "Negro" probably represented a clumsy effort to find an adjective to modify "dialect," which isn't exactly the same as calling African-Americans "Negroes." Frankly, I haven't heard a white person use the term in close to three decades; racists don't bother to clean up their own favorite slur, and everybody else generally follows the rule of adopting whatever a particular racial or ethnic group chooses to call itself.

But in any event, this idea that one race-related gaffe is equal in offensiveness to any other is plain stupid. Lott was expressing continued solidarity with the racist political system he grew up with and didn't abandon until the last possible moment. Reid used offensive language to make a almost universally-recognized objective point about voter attitudes, in the process of encouraging an African-American to run for president. That's hardly the same.

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Lott said "when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him." The "we" meant white Mississippians, since black Mississippians in 1948 were carefully dissuaded from voting by poll taxes and outright intimidation. Lott, who voted against the Voting Rights Act in Congress, sounded particularly interesting on that line.

Republicans have been trying to excuse Lott on the ground that he was just being nice to Thurmond on his birthday, but that won't wash one bit. Thurmond was not entitled to be told on his birthday that he deserved to win the 1948 election, particularly since he had long since repudiated his segregationism. Logically, that means that even Strom Thurmond no longer claimed the candidate of the States Rights Party should have defeated Harry Truman.

And Lott wasn't exactly whispering in Thurmond's ear. The Senator, who was on camera and whose remarks were being recorded, had no right to tell everybody else in America, while ostensibly talking only to Thurmond, that a segregationist victory would have improved their lives. Many such victories in the south hadn't improved the lives of southerners. They didn't improve Medgar Evers's.

Finally, Republicans attacking Reid now claim Democrats "brought Lott down." Democrats had as little power to take away Lott's post as Majority Leader as Republicans now have to take away Reid's. It was his own party members who turned on Lott at that time, including President Bush. Non-racist Republicans, too, were appalled (particularly Bush, who had been energetically trying to erase his party's racist reputation).

And as I look around various comments sections, I notice that those who identify themselves as African Americans overwhelmingly say they weren't offended at all -- that Reid spoke the truth. They aren't focused on the word "negro," they're focused on the facts. Yes there is something called a black dialect (an entire academic discipline, Ebonics, is devoted to its study). Yes, white people are indeed more likely to vote for a lighter skinned black man who sounds more like themselves. And yes, Obama does sound more southern before certain audiences. So did Hillary Clinton.

Some of the reaction to this event is simply pusillanimous. Even Harold Ford Jr. tied himself into a pretzel on Chris Matthews trying to defend and attack Harold Reid simultaneously. I'll be really glad when Obama campaigns for Reid if he lams into Michael Steele's hypocrisy. And if the President can also find a thing or two to say regarding John Cornyn's pretensions to be a defender of black America, that would be simply lovely.

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