Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What Was That Whole Trent Lott Thing About, Anyway?

It goes without saying that Harry Reid's had a tough week. First it was cold all weekend in D.C., then some extra office time on this health care stuff totally cut into the weekend. And then that whole racial business. Tough run, Harry, tough run. It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if you're ever being compared to Trent Lott, you've probably done something really dumb or illegal (fortunately for Reid, it was just dumb). At this point, let's take a look at what both people said, and compare them put them into context.

Turning first to Reid, there probably isn't anyone jumping in to argue that they loved to hear what he said, because it was stupid and inappropriate in the way he said it. And now the Republicans are trying to portray it as though he was burning crosses on Obama's lawn in a sheet. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, since half of what they argue every day is pure lunacy, but this is even more audacious because it flies in the face of both reality and their own actions.

The issue with what Reid said (basically, Obama was "light-skinned" and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.") is that the point he was trying to make wasn't really that offensive because it wasn't making a judgment. I completely agree with every claim that the way he phrased it was in poor taste and demonstrated a lack of thinking about how this would sound. His point wasn't that he didn't like Obama, that he didn't respect African-Americans, or something to that point. His point was that as much as the country raves about racial equality, White America was going to be more receptive to someone who looked more like them. It's his speculation on how a segment of undecided voters might respond to him. It sounds bad when he says it, but the principal has long been known in studies whether we're talking about babies, choosing friends, NBA viewership, and long-debated in elections. The comment about the "Negro dialect" is a poor way to make the point, since what he appeared to have meant was basically the stereotypical/cliche jargon that the same people holding racial reservations would have found highly objectionable. If he had written the statement down, for example, we would see Reid's own quotation marks around the term to further his meaning.

The context is even more critical, as it establishes this as a poorly-phrased gaffe as opposed to a revelation of racial animus. You can't call the guy a racist if he's one of the earliest supporters of a candidate of the race he allegedly dislikes. Reid has always publicly and privately supported Obama, and put his ass on the line to push the healthcare bill.

In contrast to all this, the indignant GOP and it's lackies are pointing to Trent Lott and claiming a double-standard. But what really happened back in 2002?

Lott, let's remember, had already been known for: (1) voting against Martin Luther King Day; (2) voting against extending the Civil Rights Act; and (3) voting against the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And so, on this lovely day in South Carolina, Lott proclaimed that if Strom Thurmond had won the Presidency in 1948, the Country wouldn't have all the problems it does now. The problem with this, of course, was that the chief platform of Thurmond's 1948 campaign was maintaining Southern Segregation. Keep in mind this wasn't a fringy, secondary issue--this was the main point of his campaign. Maybe Lott would try to explain it as referring to something that was purely secondary, but that's like saying, "Man, I wish those Nazis had won! That Holocaust thing was a downer, but the mail never got delivered faster! And the brown shirts were a great earth tone, good for any season."

In the end, the comparison just doesn't add up to make any sense. On one hand we have a poorly-phrased idea that doesn't correlate with the speaker's background, while on the other we see a clearly intentional statement that fits squarely within a pattern of opposing racial equality. It's clearly a weak attempt by the GOP and the industry shills to try to make Reid look bad and distract the public from the health care legislation they've desperately tried to block. It's offensive and counter-productive, but it's all they've got. That being said, it doesn't seem to be working well. You know you're not playing the race card well when all the people who would have been offended aren't, and the only ones up in arms are angry white men and Michael Steele, who, to borrow a phrase from the "The Chappelle Show," "makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X."

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