The national discussion on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's racially charged comments about then-Senator Barack Obama is still going, but I chose to wait and think about it before publishing my thoughts. I'm currently writing a book on race in America from the perspective of a conservative who happens to be black, and Reid's comments dovetailed nicely with a topic that's at the forefront of my mind.
I think it's simplifying the issue to take either the "Reid's a racist" or "Reid's a saint" position. There are too many factors that need to be discussed candidly, and it would be simplistic to boil it down to an either/or question.
This isn't the first time Senator Reid has made comments that could be interpreted as racially insensitive. When asked if he thought Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should be nominated for the position of Chief Justice, Reid declared him "an embarrassment to the Supreme Court" and said "I think his opinions are poorly written. I just don't think he's done a good job as a Supreme Court Justice."
In that same interview, he called Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas' ideological companion, "one smart guy" and someone whose nomination for Chief Justice he could support.
Thomas is black; Scalia is white.
When asked to cite an example of Thomas' "poorly written" opinions, he cited a 2003 case about California milk regulation and equated Thomas' opinion to "an eighth-grade dissertation." Eighth-graders in my experience don't write dissertations, but that's just an observation.
He praised Scalia's dissent as "well reasoned" and compared its composition to a brief written by "somebody who just graduated from Harvard" - except that Scalia never wrote a dissent in this case. He joined the majority opinion.
Here is Thomas' dissent in full and, if that is how eighth-graders in Nevada write, then I'm highly impressed:
"I join Parts I and III of the Court's opinion and respectfully dissent from Part II, which holds that §144 of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, 7 U.S.C. §7254, "does not clearly express an intent to insulate California's pricing and pooling laws from a Commerce Clause challenge." Ante, at 6-7. Although I agree that the Court of Appeals erred in its statutory analysis, I nevertheless would affirm its judgment on this claim because "[t]he negative Commerce Clause has no basis in the text of the Constitution, makes little sense, and has proved virtually unworkable in application," Camps Newfound/Owatonna, Inc. v. Town of Harrison, 520 U.S. 564, 610 (1997) (Thomas, J., dissenting), and, consequently, cannot serve as a basis for striking down a state statute."
So you have a U.S. Senator and incoming Majority Leader who goes out of his way to criticize one Supreme Court justice and praise another. Neither are ideologically aligned with him, so that isn't the basis for his comments, and in the one example he offers of a poorly written opinion, he disparages the dissent of one justice and praises that of the other, even though the other justice didn't write one. It appears that his criticism hasn't much of a basis in fact.
Even so, he went out of his way to question the intelligence of a Supreme Court justice who was an honor student in high school, where he was the only black student, and who graduated cum laude from the College of the Holy Cross and received his law degree from Yale Law School. Even Thomas' ideological foes have never questioned his intelligence, so why would Reid?
Were his comments racist? The Congressional Black Caucus, no friends of Clarence Thomas, thought they could be interpreted as such. Representative Melvin Watt of North Carolina, then the incoming caucus chairman, said "We wrote a letter to Sen. Reid cautioning him about his comments...I think all of us ought to focus more on substance and less on stereotypes and caricatures."
Perhaps it was Justice Thomas' dark skin and "Negro dialect" which make him, in Reid's mind, "an embarrassment to the Supreme Court." In my opinion, the two statements from Reid of which we are aware suggest he has some curious notions rattling about in his head about race in general and blacks in particular.
Does that make him a racist? It depends on how you define the term. If hatred is a prerequisite for racism, then I don't think he is. Patronizing? Yes, but that's a common liberal trait when it comes to blacks.
If you believe, however, the typical liberal condescension toward blacks which places blacks in the role of victim and whites in the role of savior constitutes racism - and, to hear some blacks complain about the hit movie, The Blind Side, in which a rich white family takes in a homeless black teen and "rescues" him, it does - then yes, Senator Harry Reid is a racist.
Like a lot of subjective and emotionally charged topics, your conclusions depend on where you stand.
As for Senator Reid's specific comments about Obama, they elicited a shrug of the shoulders from me. The idea that white voters find well-spoken, light-skinned blacks more attractive than dark-skinned blacks who speak "Black English" isn't news to anybody - or shouldn't be.
Colin Powell was "The Great Black Hope" for President long before Obama came on the scene, and when asked about his appeal to white voters, he said, "I speak reasonably well, like a white person," and, visually, "I ain't that black."
As a light-skinned black man with precise diction and no trace of a "Negro dialect" due to my upbringing in a military family that traveled the world, I know that my appearance and speech patterns have opened doors for me that might otherwise have been closed. I don't think of it generally until the topic of race comes up and some well-meaning person blurts out, "I don't think of you as black."
As someone who wants to see race eradicated as a measure of character or capability, I am generally pleased to elicit such comments from my white friends. Other blacks who are less focused on the goal and more on the current circumstances find such comments offensive, and they are entitled to their opinion.
Even the black community has its own color caste system. My grandfather, who was black as coal, would tell me to marry myself a nice light-skinned black girl with good hair. My grandmother was fair-complexioned and had dark wavy hair, so he followed his own advice.
My sister is darker than me and my two brothers, and we used to tease her mercilessly about it when we were younger, which might explain her temperament toward us today!
Black fraternities and sororities, historically black colleges, nightclubs and other social venues had their "brown paper bag" test which excluded anyone who was darker than the bag from admission.
Light-skinned, fair-featured blacks were more acceptable in the early days of Hollywood than those who were not. Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne are primary examples of this preference, and Ms. Horne was well aware of it:
"I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked."
Psychological studies show that black and white participants perceive light-skinned blacks as more intelligent, wealthier and happier than those with darker skin. Garrett Morris and Julian Bond even did a skit about the topic on Saturday Night Live when Morris, the dark-skinned host of a black-themed talk show, was taken aback by Bond, his guest, when Bond stated matter-of-factly that "light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks":
Julian Bond: That's an interesting point. My theory is that it's based on the fact that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.
Garrett Morris: [ not sure he heard that right ] Say what?
Julian Bond: I said I think it might have grown out of the observation that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.
Garrett Morris: I don't get it.
Julian Bond: It's got nothing to do with having white blood. It's just that descendants of the lighter-skinned African tribes are more intelligent than the descendants of the darker-skinned tribes. Everybody knows that.
Garrett Morris: This is the first time I've heard of it.
Julian Bond: Seriously? It was proven a long time ago.
Garrett Morris: Well, I still don't quite understand. We're out of time right now, but perhaps you could come back on the show again and explain it further.
Julian Bond: There's very little to explain - it's just like I told you.
Garrett Morris: Well, we are out of time. Good night. [ to Julian ] If you could repeat it just once more...
Most whites would name Halle Berry and Shemar Moore as representative of black beauty today, although that is changing with each succeeding generation. I know of few whites who wouldn't find Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett attractive, even if they don't pass the paper bag test.
The bottom line is that Harry Reid was telling the truth about Obama's appeal, even if he used an archaic term - Negro - to express it.
The last issue that comes to mind in this morality play is the reaction of liberals, black and white, to Reid's comments. The swiftness and unanimity with which they closed ranks around Reid was astonishing - and two-faced.
It's not hypocritical - that word is overused and used incorrectly for the most part. A hypocrite is an actor - someone who pretends to be something they are not, and they know they aren't what they pretend to be.
A lot of people who strongly believe one thing and, in a moment of weakness, do another, may be sinners but they're not hypocrites.
In this case, I believe Reid's defenders are, for the most part, sincere in their belief that he did nothing wrong. Bad choice of words, perhaps, but not racist in their intent.
It is a widely held perception among conservatives, however, that a similar statement uttered by a conservative public figure would be met with the full wrath of the liberal establishment and the black orthodoxy. It is this perception that is at the heart of the continued tension over this episode.
If a conservative were in Reid's shoes, those making condemnatory remarks wouldn't have changed their perception of the words themselves, but they would have leapt to judgment because of the ideology of the perpetrator.
Forget about the comparisons with Trent Lott; there are too many extenuating factors in that episode to draw any parallels to it.
I can say with confidence, however,that were the circumstances the same and the Senator was named McConnell rather than Reid, there would be no groundswell of affirmation from the black community. Indeed, the reaction would be precisely the opposite.
In 2006, Lisa Gladden, a black state senator here in Maryland, was asked why blacks and their white enablers were crossing the line of propriety in their attacks on then-Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Senate candidate Michael Steele, in one case portraying him in blackface with the caption, "I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the big house." Her answer was instructive.
"Party trumps race."