“I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.”
– Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich
“I am an African-American candidate. What I mean by that is, I am a candidate that African-Americans have voted for and will vote for.”
This kind of issue, entertaining though it is, is a minor blip on the broader political landscape. The left made a huge issue out of some remarks that Trent Lott (who did not get into any specifics – those were filled in by those seeking offense) made at a party celebrating Strom Thurmond. Now it’s the right’s turn to pounce on some unfortunate remarks (regardless of the relative truth or merit contained therein) that Harry Reid made about the current POTUS, sometime prior to the election.
Do I believe that Harry Reid is a racist? No, it is unlikely that he is. Is Harry Reid going to step down because of all of this? No. Should Trent Lott been forced from his leadership position because of the Strom Thurmond remarks? No, of course not.
Is the right’s point made about the hypocrisy of the respective deals? Yes, at least for me it is.
Is Rod Blagojevich continuing to be proven a scary, scary product of the Chicago political machine? Yes, indeed.
Wrong. Trent Lott’s comments were completely substantive. For those keeping score: Lott, at a 100th birthday celebration for Strom Thurmond, said that Thurmond should have been elected President in 1948 when he ran as the nominee of the pro-segregation Dixiecrat party. If he had been elected, Lott continued, the US would not have “all these problems.” Lott admitted later that it was a poor choice of words and he apologized. The damage was done and the criticism was justified.
However to view Lott’s self-destructive remark solely in the context of left vs. right misses the political reasons for Lott’s removal from Senate leadership. The Democrats in the Senate had no say over whether Lott should or shouldn’t be majority leader back in 2003 because they weren’t in the majority back then. That didn’t stop them from taking advantage of the situation, but they weren’t the only ones to see it that way. Enter the Bush White House and Karl Rove who did not get along well with Lott and wanted a different “team player” in the position of Senate Majority leader. Lott’s comments provided a convenient cover for the White House and its allies in the Senate Republican caucus to shake up the majority’s leadership.
Reid’s comment, though certainly archaic and not just-a-little-bit tone deaf, was in the context of a ham-handed compliment to President Obama’s candidacy. For more on the comparison between Lott and Reid, I suggest reading this article by Joan Walsh: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2010/01/10/reid_gaffe/
Walsh provides the nugget that I think sums up the difference between the two remarks best while also showing that the Republican claims of equivalency are bogus:
“One guy is talking, perhaps inelegantly, about why he’s wholeheartedly supporting our first black president; the other is wishing the country had elected a racist. That’s exactly the same thing!”
Of course, Ace, I should probably rejoice now that the Republicans have swooped into this controversy as the party at the forefront of fighting racism, particularly as suffered by African-Americans. I can’t wait for their next platform taking on employment and housing discrimination. I’m sure it should be revelatory.
It was 50-something years later, and he was trying to say something nice about a doddering old man (of which we have far too many of who stay in the Senate until the day they die, or nearly so), who had kind of become a symbol of the evolution of the Old South, for better or worse, from reconstruction, through “Southern Democratism”, through Dixecrat, through opposition to the 60s Civil Rights movement, to conversion to the GOP during the Reagan era.
Lott nowhere advocated the Dixiecrat platform, nor reaffirmed any racist or segregationist policies of the past, at least not any that I have seen or read in the transcript of that event.
Reid’s comments, however, are substantive – he was making the argument (all too readily pushed by the then-Hillary Clinton presidential campaign) that Obama is not “black” enough (whatever that means in the 21st Century), and that in his natural state he sounds “white” (id). The fact that I read no racism into his comments either doesn’t mean that his use of specific language (in this case “Negro”) can’t be offensive to some.
When I give instruction in military history and I refer to “Colored Troops” in the Civil War context, I make sure that I specify that I am using the language for a specific reason, and for clarity as the various regiments were referred to in that manner. But, of course, I’m not the Senate Majority Leader, who seems to be under more scrutiny.