Monday, January 11, 2010

Harry Reid /= Trent Lott

Not that I have any desire to defend Reid, of course. He's a poster boy for government that's big, bad and burdensome. Should he step down from his Senate leadership post? Should he resign from the Senate altogether? Should he be sent packing in November? Yes to all three questions -- but not because he said "Negro." There are plenty of other, better reasons to send him back to the private sector.

To equate Reid's "Negro dialect" remark to Trent Lott's comments on Strom Thurmond is simply at variance with reality.

Here's the account, from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's new book, Game Change, of Reid's alleged offense:

Years later, Reid would claim that he was steadfastly neutral in the 2008 race ... But at the time, in truth, his encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He 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 later put it privately

Now, here's what Trent Lott said about Strom Thurmond:

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."

Strom Thurmond ran for president as, effectively, a single-issue candidate. What was that single issue? Well, let's let Strom speak for himself:

I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.

It's not even close.

Reid used a word ("Negro") that's come over the years to be considered "politically incorrect." The United Negro College Fund hasn't changed its name, nor has the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- I guess they consider themselves "grandfathered in" due to historical significance or something -- but the cultural perception these days is that those terms imply racism in general usage. Untangling how that happened would probably be a book-length job, so I hope the reader will stipulate: "Negro" just isn't used any more because it's likely to be perceived as racist terminology.

However, Reid used that word in a context which tends to militate against that perception. He used it to describe a stereotype, yes, but he was describing that stereotype as not applying to a candidate -- a candidate whom he in fact avidly supported.

Lott, on the other hand, could only be reasonably understood as saying that America would be a better place if the civil rights movement had been nipped in the bud and if Jim Crow had been maintained. Nipping the civil rights movement in the bud and maintaining Jim Crow and segregation were the primary stated aims of Thurmond's presidential campaign.

These two things are nothing like each other.

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