During the presidential campaign in 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) reportedly said in private that he believed that the country was ready to elect a black man who, like Barack Obama, was “light-skinned” and didn’t talk with a “negro dialect.” He added that Obama’s race would probably help him more than hurt him in the election. The allegations—which Reid has not denied—come from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s gossipy new book Game Change. The book is filled with embarrassing anecdotes like this. In another, Bill Clinton dismisses Obama as a serious politician. Another is about how Sarah Palin couldn’t keep Joe Biden’s name straight and kept referring to him as “O’Biden.” But it’s Reid’s comments that have ignited a firestorm in the media.
Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele—himself a black man—accused Sen. Reid of racism and called on Reid to step down as majority leader. Steele compared Reid to Republican former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who resigned his post in 2002 after making racially-charged remarks. Reid quickly issued a public apology, calling it “a poor choice of words.” He also apologized privately to President Obama, who said he accepted Reid’s apology without question, saying that he considered the issue closed. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, likewise issued a statement accepting Reid’s apology and praising him for his support of “policies that benefit poor and minority communities.”
Sen. Reid says he won’t step down. As many have pointed out, the idea that Obama’s chances of winning might be affected by the color of his skin or the way he talked is not particularly controversial. As Ezra Klein puts it, “we literally have studies on this subject.” Eugene Robinson agrees, saying he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence “that so many pioneers—Edward Brooke, the first black senator since Reconstruction; Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice; Colin Powell, the first black secretary of state—have been lighter-skinned.” As I’ve argued before, pretending that race isn’t an issue doesn’t make it so, although we might prefer our politicians didn’t think this way. Nor do Reid’s remarks compare to Lott’s suggestion that the country would be better off if it had adopted Strom Thurmond’s segregationist platform in 1948. Where Reid was encouraging a black man to run for president, Lott was implying black men should ride at the back of the bus. Reid’s remarks don’t even compare to Joe Biden’s ugly comment during the 2008 campaign that the black candidates who ran for President before Obama—like Jesse Jackson, Carol Mosely-Braun, and Alan Keyes—weren’t articulate, bright, and clean.
But it’s easy to see why Sen. Reid’s comments are disturbing. It’s not so much that Reid acknowledged the ugly truth that Obama’s chances would be hurt the more obviously black he seemed. Nor is it just that the specter of an older white man using the word “negro”—even though it was the appropriate word when he was younger—is reminiscent of an era when racism was even more pervasive than it is now. It’s also his apparent belief that our speech patterns are the product not of our economic or social background, but the color of our skin. Perhaps it was indeed just a poor choice of words, but it is enough to make one wonder about Reid’s ideas about race.
Sen. Reid’s comments may not bother the voting public as much as the media say they should. But they may still be enough to cause real trouble for him. As Nate Silver points out, Reid’s numbers have been bad since he took over as majority leader. Being majority leader has made him a lightning rod for criticism of the Democratic Party. And the truth is that parts of the agenda he has had to advance as a leader of the Democratic Party are not particularly popular in Mormon, libertarian Nevada. The latest poll has him trailing his likely Republican opponents by ten points, with only a third of Nevadans saying they have a favorable impression of him. So Reid can’t afford to turn off any of Nevada’s black voters, who have historically been among his greatest supporters.
The truth is that these are the same racial politics as ever. Republicans have seized on Sen. Reid’s gaffe in hopes of hampering his effectiveness in the Senate and possibly forcing him out of office. Whatever their private feelings about the issue, black Democrats have rallied around Reid, who is key to their prospects of legislative success. But what we need is not posturing but a genuine political debate about what Kris Broughton aptly calls “the elephant in the room.” For the truth is that racial inequality and racial sensitivities have not magically vanished with the election of black president. As the Congressional Black Caucus said in its statement, we still have “a deep unease about race which cannot be swept under the rug.”