Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Reid’s comments on race. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has received a firestorm of crticism, mostly from Republicans, about his comments back in 2008 that Barack Obama’s race was more likely to help than hurt his electoral chances because he was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Many African Americans were rather baffled about the Republicans’ uncharacteristic insistence on political correctness. As Ward Connerly writes, “For my part, I am having a difficult time determining what it was that Mr. Reid said that was so offensive.” Or take it from Eugene Robinson, who wrote that Reid’s comments were “crudely put, yet true.” For many African Americans, as it was for Barack Obama, Reid’s error was one of using “inartful” words, not of registering a falsehood or a racist belief.
So why are Michael Steele and John Cornyn so offended? My hunch is that for all the media coverage and hoopla, we are, as usual, avoiding the real topic. Republicans aren’t really mad that there is (or is not) a double standard for when a Democrat or a Republican makes a racial statement. Their concern is that Reid’s comments were really a back-handed criticism of white Americans, who he believed were more comfortable with electing a “light-skinned” African American than a “darker” one. Reid’s comments were racist in the opposite sense (and hence resented by Republicans) – he charged some of his own race of an inability to vote for someone who looked and talked too differently from themselves.
“Light-skinned” African Americans tend to have it easier in public life. Yawn. But the logical entailment of this proposition is harder to swallow: it is only because some white Americans are still racist that “light-skinned” African Americans do better than their “darker” brethren. Put this way: firestorm. No one likes to be called a racist, and that’s why this controversy has raged on even though President Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus, Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders have readily accepted Reid’s apology. Perhaps it is not principally to them that an apology is expected or demanded.
And so what was Reid’s mistake? It was that in a private moment he thought would remain off-the-record, he forgot that at all times the politician’s job was to flatter the people, and never to accuse them.