Flickr photo by Vermin Inc
The media spent a full day on Monday, January 11th, dissecting and reconstructing the surface meaning of Sen. Harry Reid’s remarks on Obama, which most pundits and political leaders have characterized as racist. It’s a good thing the media was given this distraction because with health care slipping into oblivion and the CIA bomber in Afghanistan and the botched bombing on Christmas Day the media was probably getting uncomfortable (one wonders how far away some newsrooms were from exploring the real motivations of the CIA bomber more closely or discussing how an "Israeli firm "failed to detect would-be bomber").
The remarks from Reid became the subject of discussion over the weekend as it became evident that Reid was quoted saying that Obama was a good choice because he was "light skinned" and described him as someone "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one" in Mark Halperin’s and John Heileman’s Game Change, a book that provided the media a fantastical opportunity to divert attention away from real issues to personalities they long and yearn to cover once again but can’t because the 2008 Election is over.
Reid’s remark was almost immediately placed alongside Trent Lott’s remark on Strom Thurmond that contributed to his political demise. Lott said in 2002, "I want to say this about my state: 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 all these years, either."
The discussion became focused on whether Lott’s "racist remark" and Reid’s "racist remark" were comparable or not. And, the debate was trotted out and rehashed on all the biggest and best news shows.
On January 9, 2010, Mark Preston, CNN’s Political Editor, appeared on CNN Newsroom at 5 pm ET and said, "This is a huge embarrassment. It’s a big deal because it will always dog him." Preston added that he would be in "deep trouble of not winning re-election" as a result of this remark.
Author of The Breakthrough, Gwen Ifill, was on NBC News at 7 am ET and agreed with Matt Lauer that dark-skinned African-Americans who speak in a way that some would consider more stereotypical would not be electable." Ifill added, "If the person is very much different from who they are or what they perceive," it’s almost a political science that "they [Americans] are less likely to vote for that person."
As a member of Sean Hannity’s "Great American Panel," Tucker Carlson essentially agreed that what Reid had said was true. But, then the panel had a problem because if it was true they would have to explore whether America was a racist country or not so the discussion quickly took a turn in another direction more comfortable for Deirdre Imus, whom Hannity had on the panel to remind Americans of the insanity that Don Imus faced after he made a racist remark.
Eugene Robinson appeared on Countdown on MSNBC and said, "I don’t think I would disagree with what he said about light-skinned versus dark-skinned African-Americans and their acceptance by the larger society. But, clearly he didn’t—whatever he was trying to say—he didn’t say it the right way. "
A commonality from these discussion emerged. Lott’s statement was racist but Reid’s was only racist to a point. Actually, it wasn’t really racist because it was a comment on political reality in America. So, Reid wasn’t necessarily wrong but he said it in the wrong way. What a lousy idea for Americans to think about?
Thinking about how Reid said what he said "the wrong way" does nothing to advance the conversation on race in America. And, perhaps, that was the intention. Certainly, the media has become trained at talking about race in a manner that conveniently skirts the inequalities that all people of color face when it comes to jobs, housing, education, voting, etc.
The way markets and other systems in our society take advantage of poverty prevalent among African-Americans can easily be supported with facts and figures that one might find in Tim Wise’s Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama or Paul Street’s Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.
But, the media are probably more comfortable with exploring the advantages of a "color-blind society," the kind of society that the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Communications Director Brian Walsh would like to "one day live in" but feel they cannot so long as people like Harry Reid are out making public remarks that allude to racial inequality in America.
Media pundits would rather pontificate on what’s a racist remark and what isn’t. And, in that case, what is a racist remark? Was Reid’s comment even close to a racial slur, as many would suggest?
Well, since Reid’s remark doesn’t come close to equating Obama to a porch monkey, spook, spade, moolie, jigaboo, or nig-nog, it’s not overtly racist. He wasn’t like George Allen and didn’t use the word "macaca" to describe Obama.
Was the remark subtly racist? No more racist than the census, which will give African-Americans an option to classify themselves as "Negro" when they fill out the 2010 Census.
No more racist than Joe Biden’s comment on how Obama was the "first mainstream African-American who [was] articulate and bright and clean and a nice-talking guy" to be successfully campaigning for the White House.
It’s certainly not as racist as Newt Gingrich’s comment that "We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country, and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."
Or, this comment from MSNBC Political Analyst Pat Buchanan:
"White men were 100 percent of the people who wrote the Constitution, 100 percent of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100 percent of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100 percent of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks. If I look at the U.S. track team in the Olympics and they’re all black folks, I don’t automatically assume it’s discrimination."
Or, this comment from Vice President Joe Biden, "You cannot go to a 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian Accent."
This nation hasn’t just been exposed to a range of racist remarks from political leaders and political pundits in recent years (which Rachel Maddow incorporated into her segment on Reid’s remark on January 10), but this nation has heard football commentators like Howard Cosell liken football players to monkeys and heard people like Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder complain about how black people were taking coaching jobs from white people.
This nation has seen Michael Richards become enraged and go off on a seemingly racist rant after he could no longer take the heckling coming from a table of four African Americans and heard Don Imus remark on "nappy-headed hos" and Rush Limbaugh comment about slavery and how the streets were safer 100 years ago.
If I have to pick one comment that sticks out from the media coverage of Reid’s remark, Brown University African Studies Department Chair, Tricia Rose, wins.
After Maddow played a montage of racist comments on her show January 10, Rose responded, "I’m actually kind of flabbergasted by the degree to which these vastly different statements with entirely different meanings, contexts, and intents can be collapsed. And it’s really quite dangerous, frankly. It’s only enhancing what is already a deep level of illiteracy and fear and anxiety about really addressing race."
I wholly agree with it and think all Americans should consider what she said.
To the extent that we define our understanding of racism in this country by what people say and what we think we mean, we fail to recognize the real elements of racism in America. We miss the underlying subtle structures that have elements of institutional racism, which managed to survive after the civil rights movement in the 1960s and which have perhaps became more strong and robust after Third Way president Bill Clinton made his changes to welfare and other social policies in the 1990s.
As a culture, we miss the way these elements of racism now ensure the production of non-white political leaders who care more about their careers and the corporations that will be funding their election and re-election campaigns and less about the social and environmental injustices, which eat away at the soul of communities filled with low-income and unemployed Americans, particularly Americans who are people of color.
We also doom ourselves and ensure we will fixate on why people like Reid are cosmetically wrong to say what they say on race instead of allowing the ideology of such comments on race to supersede the remarks’ cosmetic failings.