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Reid and Obama

PH2010011000559.jpgI'm trying really hard to understand why Harry Reid's comments about Barack Obama's electability were offensive. Do people seriously dispute that light-skinned African Americans have traditionally been more palatable to white Americans? We literally have studies on this subject. Is there a real argument over whether African American politicians use different cadences in front of primarily black audiences? Ask a political reporter about this sometime. Or go read any of the coverage from any speech Barack Obama has ever given at a black church, which inevitably will mention his "classical preacher's cadence," a description you will not find in any of the write-ups of, say, his health-care speech to the Congress.

It's weird, of course, that Reid used the word "negro" as opposed to "black" or "African American." But that seems to have a lot more to do with age than with racial attitudes. After all, Reid is the same guy who, In 2007, told Obama, "If you want to be president, you can be president now." Reid has also spent the past year working to push Obama's agenda through Congress and make sure the nation's first African American president has a successful first term and a good shot at reelection. If that's what counts for racism these days, then America has come a long way.

Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 11, 2010; 7:29 AM ET
 
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Comments

There was nothing wrong with the word, Negro, when I was growing up. In 1954, Dr. Ralph Bunche was described using that word. Hopefully, white folks are not going to require a ban on that word...The National Council of Negro Women is a well respected group of people. White people need to be better educated and now is the time. Thank you, Mr. Klein for being one of our teachers!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | January 11, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

If I recall, the name of the NAACP was a bit embarassing in the 50's, "Negro" was the proper name, "colored people" was demeaning. And I also seem to remember reporters noting our first "black" President adjusting his accent when talking to black audiences.

Posted by: bharshaw | January 11, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

The media has a double standard when it comes to racially insensitive comments.

Harry Reid, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson Sr and Al Sharpton are allowed to apologize and are forgiven

Trent Lott and George Allen are attacked and driven from office.

The masses know when there is a double standard at work.

Posted by: mwhoke | January 11, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Indeed, when your past actions show that you're a racist, you're driven from office for doing racist things. Quite a double standard. Remind me how many white supremacist rallies Harry Reid attended compared to Trent Lott. And George Allen must have loaned that noose in his office with Bill Clinton, I'm sure.

Posted by: _SP_ | January 11, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

I recall anecdotally of course when at the advent of the term "Blacks" in the mid 60's LBJ was credited with uttering something like "Blacks? I was just getting used to calling them Negros". We have such a dysfunctional situation in America as concerns the "races". White folks treated everybody else bad. Jefferson wrote "all men are created equal" when what he meant was "all free white men of property". We have corrected that now to mean "all people regardless". Now everybody needs to get over it and move forward. I thank the Cosmos we are finally coming to our senses. The talking heads discredit themselves giving this any air time as "news".

Posted by: BertEisenstein | January 11, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

God, just what we needed: another occassion where a Democrat says something that probably wasn't intended with any racist intent and is promptly apologized for which allows Republicans to whine that every time someone from their side of the aisle evidences, say, nostalgia for segregation that they get criticized for it.

I'm left only to wonder whether the Republicans that whine over things like this really don't see the difference or if they're not being honest. Well, I don't really wonder. I've got a pretty good idea which one it is.

Posted by: MosBen | January 11, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

hate and fear. hate and fear. hate and fear.
everyday, the pot gets stirred a little harder.

this comes from, in large part, an incendiary, accusatory media, that thrives on stirring hate and fear, inaccuracy and sensationalism.. a bitterly polarized, angry, paranoid culture and many political leaders who are selfish, greedy, unwise, unprincipled and unpatriotic...in that the needs and well-being of their constituents seem to be the very last things on their mind.

president obama practices forgiveness.
if his stingy critics can give him nothing else, then they should appreciate his decency in dealing with others and being quick to forgive.
he has managed to stay human throughout a brutally assaulting, first year in office. be grateful.

there is an old saying.
"you cant turn a sow's ear into a silk purse."
but nowadays, it takes both sides of the mainstream media, about two seconds to turn a silk purse into a sow's ear.
goodness, kindness, forgiveness, decent intentions, hard work...it all get driven like mud under an unforgiving heel.
well, just keep trying to do good where you stand. and make the world a better place, however you can.
there is much cruelty out there.

Posted by: jkaren | January 11, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

You're trying hard? Try harder, because you're not trying if you can't realize that it is quite creepy, and especially, for a white person, to talk about degrees of black skin color. Would it have been okay for him to use the word "octaroon"? He sounded like someone from apartheid days of South Africa. He sounded like a creep. And "dialect"? What an idiot. He meant cadence or accent.

Posted by: truck1 | January 11, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

truck1, yeah, it sounds bad, but does it evince anything of substance about Reid other than a bad choice of phrasing? Nothing he said is untrue on the merits, and I don't see anything in Reid's history that leads me to believe that he thinks it's a good thing that President Obama's skin tone or speaking style is a factor in his electability. Finally, he didn't disemble when it bacame an issue. I saw his apology pretty much as soon as I heard he had made the statement and I haven't seen him back track since then.

The arguments about "a man of his age" etc. aren't meant (at least not by me) to excuse what is clearly not an ok thing to say, but an explanation of where it could have come from, as we roll our eyes at "men of his age". It wasn't ok, hopefully he's learned his lesson, but he's apologized and I'm willing to move on. There's no deeper problem here that I think warrants my continued anger.

Posted by: MosBen | January 11, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

As an example, let's take Limbaugh's statement about Donavan McNabb from a few years ago, that he was overrated because people were desirous of having a successful black quarterback. The statement wasn't true. McNabb hasn't, to my experience, ever been really "overrated". He's an occassionally great but isn't the most reliable and isn't very sturdy. And even if he's overrated, there's no basis that the reason is because he's black. Limbaugh never really apologized and still talks about it as if he were unfairly attacked. Finally it's part of a long line of questionable comments that leads one to the conclusion that Limbaugh's issues with race extend beyond one accidental comment.

That's why I'm not super pissed at Harry Reid but think poorly of Limbaugh.

Posted by: MosBen | January 11, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

By "octaroon" I imagine the previous commenter meant "octoroon"; that term, however, whether considered offensive or not, would not apply to Barack Obama. The correct, if also offensive, term would be "mulatto". At any rate, while Reid's remarks were, shall we say, inartful, the idea that they were somehow equivalent to Trent Lott's expression of pride in his state's voting for the explicitly racist Strom Thurmond, and expressing the view that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948--it's hard to see how anyone could make that argument in good faith.

Posted by: thehersch | January 11, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

I don't find find the double-standard argument entirely without merit. For example, Chris Dodd said something arguably worse in support of Robert Byrd--than Bob Byrd, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, would have been "right in the Civil War", in the same time frame that Trent Lott suggested the country would have been better if then-segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond had won the presidency. Trent Lott got railroaded and Chris Dodd's over-the-top comments got a pass. If there was not a double-standard at work there, then the concept of a double-standard has no fixed meaning and can be "contextualized" to mean whatever is convenient at the time.

That being said, Harry Reid deserved a little grief for what he said, and he got it, and he apologized, and that should be it. It should be over. Would it be over had Dick Cheney said it? Possibly not. But conservatives don't do themselves any favors by eagerly calling liberals "racists" due to simple faux pas.

Can otherwise political liberals be racists? Certainly. Is Harry Reid's statement evidence of it? No. If anything, he was probably extemporaneously trying to avoid using a politically incorrect phrase like "ghetto slang" when talking about Obama, and made a poor choice. Of all the folks demanding political correctness from our public figures and politicians, I'd think conservative pundits and politicians would shy away from it. That's definitely a double-edged sword.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 11, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis, I had to look up that reference to Chris Dodd's comments, but I'm not terribly troubled by them. They clearly demanded that he apologize and explain. But on the other hand, I don't think the statement evinces Dodd's secret racism. Josh Marshall's had a couple good posts on this, but who the speaker is matters. Lott had a long history of race-issues that left the impression that what he meant by his comment was that Thurmond's pro-segregationist presidency would have solved our country's race problems through continued segregation and non-passage of Civil Rights legislation.

Dodd's comment hits my ear as a mistake. He apologized and he doesn't have a history that makes me doubt it.

Posted by: MosBen | January 11, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

As I recall, the dominant word used by southern and other racists in the '40s, '50s and '60s was what is now known as the "N-word." Then, the correct term was Negro, which the southerners and others corrupted to "nigra." I think Black came in to get away from that context, and was used by Black Power advocates as a way to call a spade a spade, as it were.

But then "Afro-American" and then "African-American" came in, although there are major cultural differences among people whose African ancestors came here involuntarily 3 centuries ago and those who immigrated in the last 3 decades for economic and political reasons. And of course there is Teresa Heinz Kerry, from Madagascar, who is technically African-American, though she was derided for saying so the campaign trail.

Since we are all descended from Africans and there really is no such thing scientifically as race, I long for the day when we can get past this. But since it is us Anglo-Saxon whiteys who have historically had the problem with skin color, I doubt that will happen any time soon.

Posted by: Mimikatz | January 11, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

MosBen,

I understand the argument and, frankly, I'm fine with the defense of Dodd's comments. But the double-standard comes in the assumptions of contextualizing the statements. In one case, given Byrd's history and the fundamental conflict of the civil war, if one were biased against Dodd or Byrd, the context could be: "Good golly! Byrd was a Grand Wizard in the Klan! Look at these letters he wrote! There's documentation of Byrds positions! How could Dodd say these things?" Or the context could be: "Byrd has a progressive history. Some of his best friends are African-American. Come on, he was just there to say nice things about Byrd. It was a tribute, not a statement of policy."

In the case of Trent Lott, he was simply praising an old friend at a 100th birthday party. A friend who had not only renounced his past segregationist ways and embraced extending the Voting Rights act, but supported the creation of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. After the firestorm erupted, Trent Lott apologized repeatedly and egregiously, at least four times in public and personally to more than 50 of his colleagues, calling them up one by one. While, in the past (and isn't that so long ago?) Lott was not always a friend to civil rights, he was part of the effort to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Rosa Parks, helped with a task force to recognized the slaves who helped build the Capitol, and helped create a day honoring minority World War II veterans.

And so on. I think there's a double standard in the assumptions, and the context placed around the stories. The Harry Reid story could be put in the context of house many African Americans there are in senate committees or how many African Americans there are in his staff or in the neighborhood Harry Reid lives in--none of which are particularly fair, but are all things that have been brought up in the context when discussing inappropriate comments from others.

BTW, this double-standard works both ways. I'm not saying that double-standards only favor Democrats or liberals, only there are differing standards (for which there are excuses . . . there are *always* excuses) and to pretend there are not is either disingenuous or naive, in my two-pennies worth of opinion.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 11, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Look, we all know that if a Republican had said the same thing, Ezra would be teeing off on him, in the same way that Republicans were smacking Reid over the weekend. This is how the game is played.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 11, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Without getting into discussion of whether Dodd or Limbaugh was worse than Reid, I will cite Yglesias, who said that while it's nice he apologized, you can't apologize for being the sort of person who would be inclined to say "negro dialect". Ask yourself: would those words come out of your own mouth? I didn't think so. But then, Yglesias is a far more independent minded man than Klein, who has become something of an administration boot licker.

Posted by: truck1 | January 11, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Shocking, absolutely shocking that Ezra Klein would rationalize a way to defend Harry Reid.

This blog continues to be the center of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty.

Posted by: FreeMas | January 11, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Tomtildrum,

Ezra might not, but certainly many on the left would. However, in regards to that being how the game is played, I would argue that it is self-defeating for Republicans to get up-in-arms about a *lack of political correctness* on the part the Senate Majority Leader.

Maybe call out the double-standard. Maybe not. But to actually act offended? Please. I'm a rock-ribbed conservative who votes Republican 9 times out of 10, and that rings hollow to *me*.

The correct response would be, "Look, he misspoke, he apologized. That's over. However, he still hasn't apologized for conducting all these back room healthcare deals in secret!" Or something like that. Bring it back to policy, or what's happening in the Senate right now.

And it's extra-egregious because conservatives always rail against the "thought police" nature of speech codes, hate crimes and political correctness. And yet, when they (some of them) think it gives them a political advantage, the "thought police" thing is suddenly fine. Sigh.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 11, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

"There was nothing wrong with the word, Negro, when I was growing up. In 1954, Dr. Ralph Bunche was described using that word. Hopefully, white folks are not going to require a ban on that word."

It was banned decades ago. It's *seriously* weird to see someone use it. Hence the furor.

Posted by: adamiani | January 11, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

In regards to not being able to apologize for being the *kind* of person who would use the phrase "negro dialect" . . . well, far be it for me to support Harry Reid on anything, but what other substantial contemporary evidence is there of any sort of racism? What else has Harry Reid said? How has he voted? Dick Durbin directly compared U.S. military men and women to Nazis and Pol Pot. What has Harry Reid said that bad about anybody for any reason? Not saying it's not there, but if this is the sole substance of the argument for Harry Reid's rampant racism . . . color me unimpressed.

Seriously, the whole idea that you can't apologize for being the kind of person who would use the word "negro dialect" is just wrong. Of course you can. You say, "I'm sorry I said that." And you don't say it again. Might be harder if you liked to speak to white supremacist groups, but I'm pretty sure Harry Reid hasn't.

You wanna talk racist Democrats, go after Robert Byrd. He's said more than a few things in the past ten years that, given his history (if we judge by the Trent Lott standard), that were more than inappropriate. And I'm not sure if apologies were always forthcoming.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 11, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I don't think that Reid is a horrible racist. There's more to any one person than one badly-phrased moment, and to say "Reid's a racist" based on this alone would be unfair.

That said, Ezra, do you really believe that Harry Reid, had he been talking directly to Obama's face, would have used the word "negro"?

Posted by: BarryDeutsch | January 11, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Two quick thoughts:

1. This is silly gotcha Washington stuff, that ordinary people roll their eyes over how silly people in DC can be over the most trivial of things.

2. If what Reid said was racially offensive, it seems there's a need to find at least one African-American who took offense at the remarks, rather than a bunch of white conservative politicians and their mouthpieces, who couldnt care less about the plight of African-Americans until yesterday.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 11, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

The epitome of hypocrisy ... Republicans taking offense at racist comments ...

This is nothing more than Republican campaign antics ... create a public furor, take another swipe at Reid's already vulnerable re-election prospects.

Posted by: onewing1 | January 11, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

There is only one word in Reid's statement even remotely inappropriate and that word is "dialect." Negro is not an offensive term. United "Negro" College Fund is scholarship fund for "Negroes" supported by the NAACP (CP stands for colored people). Light-skinned is a widely used descriptionary term used by all black people without exception (as opposed to the "N" word). Reid's opinion is probably shared by a majority of black people including Obama himself. That is why virtually no black figure is giving him any flack over it. There is no double standard here. No black person would ever agree that America would be better off with Strom Thurmon.

I am a black man and I can tell you that his statement is nothing I haven't heard before. Of course, no one I know would use the term dialect to describe the brotha talk, the cadence, the accent, etc..

I don't like the term "African-American," some don't like Negro, some don't even like black but nobody loses any sleep over any of these words.

Double standards do exist on this issue, but there is none here.

Posted by: lagnappe | January 11, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Kevin Willis, take note of Ezra's other post on race later in the day. Right after asserting that identifying light skin and Negro dialect is not racist, he goes on to say that identifying black-sounding names is (when he can use it against Obama opponents). It's all about the gotcha.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 11, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Those who cast stones should careful of the aim. Mr. Reed is only part of the blame. the High mucky mucks of the Democratic Part as just as guilty as he is. Way back when the campaign started Ted Kennedy , Christopher Dodd and a few others approached the party with the idea of "someone charismatic" who can draw in the mob and give the party a boost, which they badly needed. Reid only vocalized what the rest were thinking. Watch the waffling now and where it comes from. This is old time democrat politics from way way back.

Posted by: theoldmanfromMo | January 11, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you've got to change your name. How about "Mike Cook"? Why?

"Do people seriously dispute that [non Jewish sounding names] have traditionally (sic) been more more platable to [most] Americans."

I'm sure we have studies on this too. Maybe some old German archives contain a few that would back up the above contention that seems to reflect your view!

Duplicity!

Now, where's that guy who will be "serving us coffee"?

Posted by: bjrboyd | January 12, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

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