Joe Biden once remarked that Barack Obama was "clean" and "articulate." He is now Vice President. During the Democratic primaries Hillary Clinton invoked Robert Kennedy in a way that implied Barack Obama’s assassination was imminent. She is now the Secretary of State. It is foolish to suggest Senator Harry Reid should step down as Senate majority leader because of his 2008 assessment that Barack Obama’s election was more likely because he is "light-skinned" and free from "Negro dialect."
If President Obama has demonstrated anything at all, it is that he is unperturbed by the racially awkward outbursts of his fellow Democrats.
Republicans hope that reports of Reid’s old gaffe might derail his leadership of the health care reform package. But watching Michael Steele go after Reid is more bizarre than convincing. Steele seems to pride himself on the liberal use of black discursive patterns. It’s hard to take seriously the moral outrage of a self-professed "hip-hop Republican" who explains his tenure as GOP chairman saying "brother still here."
President Obama may be unconcerned and the GOP may be transparently race baiting, but Reid’s comments did create a legitimate queasiness among many Americans that is worth exploring.
President Obama is a forgiving, beer summit kind of leader, but I am less likely to give Democrats a free pass on issues of racial bias. As I wrote a few months ago here on The Notion, any implication that racism is the sole purview of the Right obscures the continuing and troubling realities of racism within the Democratic Party and progressive political movements.
Still, I remain entirely uninterested in a racial McCarthyism that plays "gotcha politics" with elected officials’ public utterances. Yes, public officials should be particularly careful when talking about race to media (on or off the record). The opportunities for misunderstanding, divisiveness and assumption of ill intent are heightened in this area of political discussion.
But let’s be honest, if we weeded out every public official guilty of racial insensitivity, the halls of Congress would echo with utter emptiness. The point is not so much public gaffes as it is the creation, support, and maintenance of systemic and structural inequalities. This is why Trent Lott’s wistfulness about a Strom Thurmond presidency is in a different class than Reid’s comments. Lott was longing for a bygone era when structural barriers and entrenched inequality were the norm. Reid was enthusiastic that the same barriers were lessening and that America was ready, albeit with caveats, for a new racial reality.
Rather than being worked up about Reid’s awkward assessment of these barriers, we should be asking whether these structural biases actually make academic and political accomplishments easier for light-skinned African Americans. NC State University historian Blair LM Kelley makes this argument in her piece on Salon.com. She points out skin color bias in the 21st century should alarm us. It shouldn’t be a matter of breezy acceptance, as many Sunday morning pundits seemed to suggest. "Accepting this as a matter of course degrades the quality of our democracy."
Reid’s assertions about "Negro dialect" also should raise structural justice questions far more important than his offensive use of an antiquated term for black Americans. Because of generations of lower class status and legal barriers to quality education, black children are far more likely than their white counterparts to be raised by parents with inadequate literacy skills. But rather than acting as a leveling ground, many public schools only reinforce these disadvantages. These are the same children relegated to schools with fewer expert teachers, larger classroom sizes, fewer educational resources, and fewer literacy support tools.
This is the racism that should worry us: millions of black American children attend and graduate from public schools that leave them utterly unqualified for public office for their entire lives. As adults these children will always be second-class citizens, unable to participate as rule makers rather than simply rule followers in their own country. Not only does this deprive a whole group from full participation in government, it also deprives our country of the skills, talents, and ideas that these citizens might have offered, had we not initially deprived them of the capacity to communicate their ideas effectively in the public realm.
Political theorist Nancy Fraser imagines justice as "a difference-friendly world, where assimilation to majority or dominant cultural norms is no longer the price for equal respect." Creating that world is an important task for combating racism.