The big toxic political news coming out of the weekend was the revelation, retailed in a new 2008 campaign book, that Harry Reid once speculated that Barack Obama might be electable as president because he was “light-skinned” and didn’t speak with a “Negro dialect.” Republicans immediately started demanding that Reid resign as Democratic Majority Leader, with many claiming his reported remarks were the equivalent of Trent Lott’s infamous wish-he-had-been-president praise for Strom Thurmond in 2002.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has the most sensible comment about Reid’s remarks and particularly the comparisons to Lott:
I think you can grant that, in this era, the term “Negro dialect” is racially insensitive and embarrassing. That said, the fair-mind listener understands the argument–Barack Obama’s complexion and his ability to code-switch is an asset. You can quibble about the “light skin” part, but forget running for president, code-switching is the standard M.O. for any African American with middle class aspirations.
But there’s no such defense for Trent Lott. Lott celebrated apartheid Mississippi’s support of Strom Thurmond, and then said that had Thurmond won, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.” Strom Thurmond run for president, specifically because he opposed Harry Truman’s efforts at integration. This is not mere conjecture–nearly half of Thurmond’s platform was dedicated to preserving segregation. The Dixiecrat slogan was “Segregation Forever!” (Exclamation point, theirs.) Trent Lott’s wasn’t forced to resign because he said something “racially insensitive.” He was forced to resign because he offered tacit endorsement of white supremacy–frequently.
Claiming that Harry Reid’s comments are the same, is like claiming that referring to Jews as “Hebrews” is the same as endorsing Nazism.
All I’ll add is a guess that Reid’s use of the word “Negro” probably represented a clumsy effort to find an adjective to modify “dialect,” which isn’t exactly the same as calling African-Americans “Negroes.” Frankly, I haven’t heard a white person use the term in close to three decades; racists don’t bother to clean up their own favorite slur, and everybody else generally follows the rule of adopting whatever a particular racial or ethnic group chooses to call itself.
But in any event, this idea that one race-related gaffe is equal in offensiveness to any other is plain stupid. Lott was expressing continued solidarity with the racist political system he grew up with and didn’t abandon until the last possible moment. Reid used offensive language to make a almost universally-recognized objective point about voter attitudes, in the process of encouraging an African-American to run for president. That’s hardly the same.