Bum rap

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is being raked over the political coals for some belatedly reported comments he made during the presidential campaign about Barack Obama’s chances as a candidate. A new book reads, “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 has his failings, which we have often criticized, but in this case he is getting a bad rap, as many African-American figures have attested.

On two of the Sunday gasbag shows, Republican national chair Michael Steele—like many other GOP leaders—compared Reid’s comment to the controversy that caused Senate Republican leader Trent Lott to lose the majority leader’s post in 2002. Lott had praised the 1948 presidential candidacy of racist Strom Thurmond, saying that Thurmond’s election as president would have left the nation better off.

The comparison is preposterous. Trent Lott was expressing his own racial views: “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 the years, either.” He expressed this view on a second occasion, so it wasn’t just a one-time, inartfully expressed view.

Reid was not expressing his own opinions. He was analyzing the way some voters might react to Obama.

There are uncomfortable truths about racism that are difficult to make palatable. Some of them will make us squirm.

This is not simply an issue of a white guy sounding off about blacks. As with so many things that are supposedly about race, this is a prejudice shared by whites and blacks. African-Americans have described the affliction within their own ranks that Reid describes in whites, which is probably one of the reasons blacks were so willing to overlook his comments. In a book on Clarence Thomas, two Washington Post reporters described the ordeal Thomas endured both as a boy in Savannah and as an adult at the hands of other blacks because he was very dark skinned: “The blacks in Savannah, like most of the South’s black society, observed a rigid caste system, a relic of slavery in which the closer one was to white, the higher one’s social standing was. The most prominent black families in town … were for the most part what a local history of African-Americans calls ‘high yellow,’ or mulatto. At the same time, many of those with purer African bloodlines, like Thomas, were made to feel inferior.”

Syracuse University Professor Boyce Watkins, an African-American leader and a champion of economic empowerment, made a similar point, even going so far as to say that Reid’s comments might be helpful: “But the truth is that for the past 400 years, light-skinned blacks have been preferable to darker skinned African-Americans in almost every walk of life, from beauty to employment to politics. In that regard, Reid was simply pointing out the obvious and reminding us that we are a long way away from any kind of ‘post-racial America.’”

Watkins said that Reid’s comments could help fuel a constructive dialogue about race. Reid critics should drop the political posturing and get on with it.