No one doubts that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made a huge gaffe when he said that Barack Obama could become the nation’s first African American president because he was “light skinned” and had “no negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Obviously, this was a poor choice of words and Reid expressed immediate regret – offering an apology that was accepted by President Obama. Reid will continue his efforts this week to be contrite and make things right, as he should.
However, the reaction by leading Republicans who called for Reid to resign was nauseating. It was astounding to witness a party built on a “Southern Strategy” of appealing to disaffected white males suddenly pretending to be the NAACP.
On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Liz Cheney called Reid’s comments racist and played the tiresome conservative victim card.
“Can I just point out, I think one of the things that makes the American people frustrated, time and time again, liberals excuse racism from other liberals,” Cheney said. “The comments were outrageous…I don’t think racism is OK, George, whether you’re saying it in private or in public…”
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said that Reid should resign from office and accused the Democrats of hypocrisy, because Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) was forced to step down from his perch as Senate Majority Leader in 2002 after he had made racially insensitive remarks.
“There is this standard where Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own,” said Steele in an interview with Fox News Sunday. “But if it comes from anyone else, it is racism.”
In today’s Republican Party, all is cynical and nothing is sacred. There is little profound and much that is profane. Such political pathology is reflected in the mindless attacks on Reid. To buy the GOP’s indignation, one must be completely ignorant of history, devoid of basic reasoning and have no understanding of context.
In the case of Reid, his comment was an aberration that contrasted with his history of supporting equality. Indeed, the actual comment was in favor of Obama’s candidacy and spoke to his viability. A true racist would never have endorsed the idea of an African American president, because by definition such a person believes that other races are inferior and not capable of leading this nation.
Conversely, Sen. Lott had a history of flirting with racism and other forms of bigotry. He began his political career in 1968 working for Rep. William M. Colmer, a segregationist from Pascagoula.
The Washington Post revealed that Lott had appeared as the keynote speaker at a 1992 meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) in Greenwood, Mississippi. This was a racist organization that barely concealed their belief in white supremacy. The organization’s magazine, The Citizens Informer had featured a large photograph of Senator Lott at the CCC conference and quoted him as telling attendees that “we need more meetings like this” and “the people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let’s take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries.”
So, by the time Lott appeared at former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond’s (R-SC) 100th birthday party on December 5, 2002, an unmistakable pattern of intolerance had already been established. At this celebration, Lott said: “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.”
Thurmond’s presidential campaign in 1948 had explicitly been about racial segregation. So, there was no way that Lott could have been “proud” of this presidential run and conclude that America would have been better off with a Thurmond victory unless he believed that segregation was good for America. This was more than simply a poor word choice. It was the seeming endorsement of a noxious, overarching worldview that had nearly destroyed this nation.
Lott denies that he supports discrimination and is a racist. However, one cannot separate his comments from the context in which they came. Compare this to Reid, who did no more than use an old fashioned, anachronistic vocabulary word. His comments were regrettable for sure, but certainly not part of a pattern of racism.
To criticize Reid in a vacuum is vacuous and the histrionics of Liz Cheney and Michael Steele blatantly ignore history. The GOP has long trivialized genuine racism and used crass political opportunism to exploit race for political gain. Now, they are doing the exact same thing, except this time they are pretending to be the guardians of diversity. Their act is embarrassingly transparent and the only “races” these phonies care about are the ones that will put Republicans back in power.
Is there anything this amoral crowd won’t say or do to win elections?
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”