Reid's Obama Blunder and What It MeansNews at Home
Critics have called Reid’s comment racist, and it is. It is racist in the same way that Joe Biden’s campaign gaffe was racist, complimenting Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” Both remarks betray a limited sense of African Americans as a community or as individuals. A sense constrained by low expectations and an inane failure to consider that black folks might occupy a spectrum of accomplishment and ability as broad and varied as that of any other peoples. Articulate? One would hope that the former editor of the Harvard Law Review could string together a lucid sentence. Negro dialect? I had not realized there was one; did we expect the presidential candidate to don a straw hat and tell us a story about Brer Rabbit and the briar patch? Statements that paint Obama as an Exceptional Negro say more about the ignorance of the speakers than they do about Obama himself.
Yet all expressions of racism are not equivalent. Republicans have made hay of Reid’s remark and the Democrats’ responses to it. If Trent Lott had to resign as Senate Majority Leader because of his unseemly remarks about black people, they argue, so too should Reid. However, where Reid and Biden revealed the extent to which they had absorbed white supremacy in the form of images, assumptions, and expectations, Lott expressed regret for the passing of white supremacy as a political and economic program. In celebrating Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott commented that Mississippi had voted for the Thurmond in 1948, the year he broke off from the Democrats and ran for president as a Dixiecrat in order to protect Jim Crow. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead,” Lott added, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” No federal civil rights legislation, presumably, and no enforcement of the decisions of the Warren court if ever it had come to that.
To marvel ignorantly at a black man’s accomplishment is one thing; to lament all the “problems” that accompany finally fulfilling the constitutional promise of black citizenship quite another. That some might equate them – and that others might credit the comparison – speaks to our failure as political and social historians to convey to people the difference between racism as affect and white supremacy as a form of social control. “I don’t care how others feel about me,” I often tell my students, “I care what access they try to deny me.” Sometimes students understand what I mean, but often they do not. For them, the African American freedom struggle was all about winning the hearts and minds of white Americans; few learned in school that African Americans set out to overthrow a political order.
Trent Lott was right: for white supremacists, the African American freedom struggle did stir up a good many problems over a goodly number of years. It was never so inevitable, so peaceable, nor so complete as the most reassuring narratives of the civil rights movement would have us believe. Historians from John Dittmer to Hasan Jeffries have underscored the profound violence that engulfed even the classic phase of the civil rights movement – violence spawned by white domestic terrorists defending on the ground what Dixiecrats tried to uphold at the polls. Moreover, recent work by Katherine Charron and Francoise Hamlin reminds us how long before and how long after the classic phase of the movement the freedom struggle spans. The movement was but one phase of an ongoing attempt to set the boundaries of state and nation in America. It is the story of American democracy. In teaching it, we need to focus less on redemption and more on emancipation.
In order to accomplish the rhetorical trick of making Lott’s statement on par with Reid’s, those rhetoricians must paint the freedom struggle as something that is long past, a story all finished. Only then, when black people and their demands for justice rest safely and solely in the past, can ignorance about African Americans seem as dangerous as hostility to African Americans. Only then, when one assumes that racial violence and racial discrimination do not exist in a magical post-racial America, can expressed feeling seem the equivalent of past action. Equating the two requires an insistence that histories remain consigned to the past where their specifics, details, and textures are forgotten. It is our job, not only to bring that history forward, but to help people see how they live in it and speak through it each and every day.
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Maarja Krusten - 1/16/2010
I’m not in a position to explain why different administrators, professors and coaches at Duke did what they did. The situation still seems very murky to me. As I said, I only looked at blog commentary for a while. Some of what I saw was very heated, with people tending to fall into just one of two camps or backing each other into corners. A lot of the commentary veered off into areas such as political correctness, with people taking pretty formulaic positions. The way it played out in blogs didn’t appeal to me. But I’ve always been more of a gray areas and nuance type person than a black and white type person. And I’m not big on jumping to conclusions. (I was reminded of that nearly a year ago, when a big controversy developed in archival circles, with people lining up to take sides far too quickly and eagerly for my taste.) I just am not sufficiently familiar with the environment at Duke to be able to assess all the motives and reasons.
As I understand it, the situation with the Group of 88 began when they placed an advertisement in the Chronicle. It does sound as if the professors in the Group of 88 later discussed whether to apologize or not. What I’ve read suggests that they believed their intent had been misunderstood. See
Here is the text of the original advertisement:
It quotes a number of anonymous statements and refers to listening. The part which sounds judgmental is at the end, where it states that “the students know that the disaster didn’t begin on March 13th and won’t end with what the police say or the court decides.”
I can see the value of debate about race relations, town and gown relations, the environment on campus. Those are areas where people may have very differing perspectives, no single one of which is right or wrong. (I’m a big believer in looking at history from multiple perspectives, as appropriate.) Keep in mind, I’m talking about environmental issues, not the facts of the case at this point. Certainly, the quotes in the ad, although not representing a broad cross section, suggest a lively discussion could ensue. There may or may not have been elements of “social disaster” to discuss.
But it’s the linking of the date March 13 to the term disaster which is most problematic. Or I should say, if I were drafting an ad I that quoted from students, I would not have done that. March 13 is the date of the party for which the players booked a stripper. (Not good judgment to bring strangers you don’t know into the place you live, but people do all sorts of things, as we all know from reading newspaper accounts—some tragic--of things going awry.) That anonymous students quoted in an ad might think a disaster is unfolding is one thing. But at the time the ad was published, there was, to my knowledge, no evidentiary support for faculty to determine whether or not the events of March 13 had unfolded as charged.
The professors were experienced in handling data and facts. With that type of training, I would have been more careful. Without knowing for sure what happened, there was no way to judge at that point whether or not the events of March 13 constituted a disaster. That’s not the approach I would have expected scholars trained in history and fact-based presentations to take with an ad. Did they trap themselves? Yeah. On the face of it, the language in that one sentence suggests they did. Did people later try to help them get out of that trap? I don’t know.
Bill Heuisler - 1/16/2010
As usual your comments are very interesting and comprehensive.
Your example of the "garbage out" syndrome is quite true, but slightly off target. The Duke faculty are supposedly responsible adults with the education and experience that makes them worthy to teach our next generation. Instead, these estimable educators gnashed their illiberal teeth and unfairly and illegitimately attacked a group of relatively innocent young men like a pack of wolves (apologies to wolves).
This behavior is unworthy. Had this followed the path of a civil tort, the college and its denisons would have lost in court and been subject to loss damages and punitive damages.
Their refusal to "take out the garbage" is arrogant and brings disrepute to all college educators.
Maarja Krusten - 1/16/2010
Correction: the Rumsfeld memo was to the White House chief of staff (Haldeman) not to President Nixon. I had several tabs open and didn't write down the correct recipient.
Maarja Krusten - 1/16/2010
Yes, context is everything.
White House staffer Donald Rumsfeld wrote in an “eyes only” memo to President Nixon on June 16, 1972 that “ McGovern is weak and would be a disastrous President. But his warmth, concern, decency are appealing because people dream, hope, aspire , and want to be better than themselves, want better for their children, and because they have fears . . . .
The more people ‘feel’ and believe (as opposed to understand) that the President has ideals , hopes and concerns, the more they will accept his approach ba sed on the vital qualities of strength, courage, brilliance and competence, because they will feel he is going--and taking them--where they want to go , and doing it skillfully.
And when a human being walks into the voting booth pulls the curtain, shrugs his shoulders at the complexity of the mechanism and then votes, that's what he wants -to know and or feel, or at least hope that that man, Richard Nixon, is leading him where he wants to go.”
Was he offering advice to Nixon on how best to reach out to people he did not perceive as understanding complex policy issues? Was Rumsfeld making fun of voters for being emotional, for having visceral reactions, for voting based on how things feel? Or was the non-nonsense man who as SecDef later would say of the Iraq war that “stuff happens” expressing his own personal prejudice against voters who are not policy wonks? I take it to mean the first.
What about the July 23, 1972 memo that Nixon himself sent to his chief of state, stating that the GOP should try to register “non-college” youth in the first year in which the voting age was dropped to 18? When the President wrote, “generally speaking we have to realize that there is about a two to one chance that college youth will vote for McGovern. There is about an even chance that the non-college youth will vote for us,” was he expressing personal bias against academic-track students or merely providing his perceptions of how people were likely to vote?
Politics is about winning. To win, you have to be willing to candidly discuss how people react, even if it means saying things privately about beliefs you believe others hold, whether you agree with them or not --things that you wouldn’t say in public.
Richard Williams - 1/16/2010
"Things haven't changed that much" ??!!
Since the 1960's!? Good Lord.
I really don't know how to reply to that one. Again, Reid's comments revealed his own prejudices more so than "A lot of white folks."
Per Fagereng - 1/15/2010
Thongs haven't changed that much. A lot of white folks would like to vote for a black candidate if they felt he/she wasn't too radical or threatening. Obama is a good example.
Harry Reid tried to say that in his clumsy language.
Richard Williams - 1/15/2010
"Back in the sixties?" This is 2010. Reid's comment revealed much more about his own prejudices and feelings, not those of most American voters.
Maarja Krusten - 1/15/2010
Happy New Year to you as well, Mr. Heuisler. Yes, doing disclosure screening of the Nixon tapes as a fed between 1976 and 1990 was fascinating. We didn’t do transcripts, we listened to the conversations and made our release/restrict decisions based on what we heard. (I listened to some 2,000 of the 3,700 total hours of Nixon tapes during my long career with NARA.) Transcripts would have taken too long at 300 hours per one hour of conversation (later reduced by the switch to computers to 100:1). We only did transcripts for a few court cases, electing instead to do subject outline logs.
My main takeaway from working with the tapes was not so much that Nixon was Machiavelian. (Listening to the tapes was not the primary reason I switched from being a Republican to being an Independent in 1989.) Rather, I developed a longstanding interest in how the nexus of the political and the policy making worlds presents leaders with enormous challenges. Nixon let his personal resentments get the better of him. He actually had the intelligence and strategic vision to make a good president.
As to the question of why the professors did not apologize, I did understand your question, I just didn’t have time to get to it before I dashed off to work. What I posted this morning set the scene for this reply, so to speak. Of course, the best people to explain why no apology occurred are those who made the statements about the lacrosse players. I can only speculate. Remember how I mentioned wiggle room in the comment I posted above? I wonder at times whether the silence is related to what I call “why didn’t you take out the garbage” syndrome. Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen has written a number of articles and books about differing styles of communication and how people inadvertently undermine efforts to get things done by using styles of communications that cause others to balk rather than see the light.
Dr. Tanen uses the example of a wife telling her husband to take out the trash to illustrate how people can end up in situations where things escalate. She writes that the wife says, “The garbage can is full, could you take out the trash?” The husband thinks, “yeah, it’s full, but I’ll just wait a little bit and take it out when I’m ready.” He’s resistant to doing it on-demand. After a short delay, just as he thinks, “ok, might as well take it out,” she snaps, “Didn’t I ask you to take out the trash? Why haven’t you done it?” She’s oblivious to the resistance to snap to it, on-demand action. He thinks, “you can bet I’m not going to hop to it now. I’ll don’t want her to think nagging is going to get me to do things.” So he starts the waiting clock again. Both get increasingly annoyed until an argument ensues, one calling the other a nag, the other calling the other uncooperative or lazy.
This isn’t a gender thing necessarily. Sometimes people just don’t want to do something if they know that someone is waiting for them to do it. They may see the need of doing it, but they need the space and the time to do it of their own choosing, not as an ordered action. Sometimes it’s best to request something be done in a casual tone, then just wait it out. And resist the urge to nag. Maybe even work in some joke at one's own expense in making the request, to take the edge off.
I know I’ve sometimes bristled when someone tells me to do something and then looks at me expectantly as if I’m supposed to drop what I’m doing and do what they want immediately. I’m sure most people have. Standing over someone and demanding that they do something doesn’t always bring the desired result. Maybe the professors will apologize one day, I don’t know. Maybe it is too hard to get consensus for a group apology, given the number of people involved. But if an apology ever comes, I doubt it will be occur on-demand. In the public sphere as at home, it’s best sometimes not to trap people or to back them into corners where positions calcify, backs stiffen, and all sorts of things get in the way of saying, "yeah, you're right."
I actually found Dr. Lentz-Smith’s essay interesting, although it didn’t touch on all the things I mentioned in my earlier comment. I’m too old to have studied the civil rights era in school (I graduated from high school and entered college in 1969.) But I have been reading a lot about it in recent years on my own, it's been my primary topic for leisure time reading since about 2004. I certainly don’t agree with the perspective of the student described in James C. Cobb’s 2006 blog essay (see
http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/24574.html ) .
who seemed to imply that studying such issues is for partisans. I would hope she was not representative of most students! But having worked my entire career as a federal government historian, I’m not familiar with what teachers face in the classroom, except for what I read in articles and blogs. My work largely has been with federal officials and researchers.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, hey, at least I got a little dialogue going, LOL.
Per Fagereng - 1/15/2010
There is no rational reason, but some folks feel threatened by dark-skinned folks whose speech is not like theirs.
It's called prejudice.
Back in the Sixties San Francisco elected a black man, Terry Francois, to the Board of Supervisors. Part of his appeal to white voters was his "moderate" politics and genial demeanor. It was no big secret.
Bill Heuisler - 1/15/2010
Your post is fascinating - reading Nixon's transcripts must be like reading Machiavelli For Dummies.
And your observations about race are pretty accurate in my opinion.
But perhaps you misunderstood my post. My intent was to backlight the absurdity of a member of the Duke faculty (of all people) having the chutzpah to give advice and excuses about racial tolerance and subtleties.
Remember the Duke faculty almost unanimously (particularly the History Department) demanded the expulsion and conviction of the lacrosse players
before a trial and before indictment. The faculty comments at the time had no subtlety or wisdom, but were full of public racial sturm und drang.
Finally my question is why have there been no public apologies from Lentz-smith's fellow race-baiters at Duke.
Happy New Year, Bill
Richard Williams - 1/15/2010
Why would one assume that someone with dark skin and a "Negro dialect" is "threatening"? Reid's comment was very revealing and I marvel at how some will contort their views to justify Reid's comment simply because he's a liberal Democrat.
Maarja Krusten - 1/15/2010
While employed by NARA, I spent years listening to Richard Nixon strategize about political and policy issues on his secretly recorded White House tapes. My experiences studying Presidents such as Nixon taught me that people in Washington often talk candidly in private about candidates. What they do is commodify potential candidates. This includes identifying what characteristics appeal to people, what pushes voters’ button, how to get the best mileage out of perceived positive and negative characteristics, etc. It’s the same premise as when product developers talk about focus group results when rolling out a new item for sale. Sometimes they use language and terms they never would use in public. Most of us wouldn’t enjoy being picked apart as products for sale, but RN taught me that it happens.
Second, Barack Obama’s effective and thoughtful March 2008 Philadelphia speech notwithstanding, it’s very difficult for a lot of Americans to talk about race. Message boards particularly are problematic as they are the least likely places to find dialogue. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I hear much more nuanced and honest conversations about any number of things in real life than I see on message boards. I suspect trust is an issue, people are less guarded with folks they know personally. For all its vaunted “community square” characteristics, a web forum rarely results in insightful exchanges. Too many constraints, too much posturing. Superficially at least, it seems situational ethics abound. (I see no differences among commentators across the political spectrum in that.) I personally think some of that is a false reading, that people just don’t know how – or lack good will -- to give each other enough wiggle room. They type needed to enable people to swallow their pride and occasionally to post under an “opponent’s” comment, “you’re right, I hadn’t considered that.” Or, heavens forbid, acknowledge that a figure from the opposing party who is under attack does not deserve it. (How often do you see any writer display that type of moral courage in a web forum?)
Too many issues become politicized even in history focused forums such as HNN. Judging by the way people argue issues, people who work in real life in jobs requiring negotiation and the ability to move communications forward just don’t seem to show up in web forums very often. Mr. Heuisler mentions the Duke lacrosse case. I briefly followed postings about it (one of the bloggers here on HNN took an interest in the case and later published a book about it). But I soon abandoned web commentary and stuck to reading news reports only. The Duke case had the potential to trigger interesting debate about a number of issues, including what leads to stereotyping by race or profession or position on campus, what causes problems in town and gown relations, policing issues in academic settings, what leads to prosecutorial over reach, even social issues such as the nature of work such as stripping and what it can do to the people who do it. The problem for me was that rigid right and left lines appeared when that need not have been the case. Some of the issues I just listed fell by the wayside. Conservatives largely lined up behind the players, some liberals (although not all) behind the so-called Group of 88. Once that happens, admitting that someone else has a point becomes increasingly difficult. Positions calcify, people dig in their heels, and rarely does someone with facilitiative or negotiating skills show up on a message board to free those entrapped on both sides and to move the discussion beyond the barriers that have gone up. Same old, same old. Meh.
John Connally - 1/14/2010
How's that "post-racial" America treating everyone?
Bill Heuisler - 1/14/2010
To demand justice you must defend justice. Did you defend justice when most of the Duke faculty condemned - out of hand and before a trial - white Duke lacrosse players because their purported victim was black?
Racism cuts both ways. Defending Reid and not the lacrosse players because of some implied "context" betrays an unworthy political agenda. By the way, have any Duke faculty members apologized for their injustice to those white lacrosse players?
Michael Glen Wade - 1/14/2010
In its own way, Ms. Lentz-Smith's academic misreading of Harry Reid's statement as racist is as grievous as the cynically ignorant Republican attempt to achieve political capital from it. Reid's real mistake was that he didn't defend the statement as an honest and widely correct, if unfortunately published assessment of the American electorate, especially that part which votes for the verbally-challenged Bushes and Palins. Once it was out, Old Harry should have stood up for what he said and suggested that the noisy, smug critics have a look in the mirror.
John Connally - 1/13/2010
Jonathan might have to provide some examples to back up that comment.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/13/2010
Conservatives get away with saying things a lot more actually racist than what Reid said. But because Reid slipped (though there's some question as to whether it's a reliable quotation) in his language, he's catching flack.
Edmond Dantes - 1/13/2010
I am not sure that I follow. Liberals need to be consistent with what - language, empirical data, history - while conservatives do not? Liberals can say "negro" in pointing out facts, but conservatives cannot? I am not trying to be argumentative.
Edmond Dantes - 1/13/2010
Another debate arising from this incident focuses on the party of race. Democrat.org reported, after Reid's comments were revealed, that “Democrats are unwavering in our support of equal opportunity for all Americans. That’s why we’ve worked to pass every one of our nation’s Civil Rights laws… On every civil rights issue, Democrats have led the fight.” Doesn't this sound like a gross distortion of the historical record? Is that supposed to justify any racist comments made by democrats? Both major parties made significant progress in race relations during the last 150 years. One blogger provided the following list:
September 30, 1953
Earl Warren, California’s three-term Republican Governor and 1948 Republican vice presidential nominee, nominated to be Chief Justice; wrote landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education
November 25, 1955
Eisenhower administration bans racial segregation of interstate bus travel
March 12, 1956
Ninety-seven Democrats in Congress condemn Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and pledge to continue segregation
June 5, 1956
Republican federal judge Frank Johnson rules in favor of Rosa Parks in decision striking down “blacks in the back of the bus” law
November 6, 1956
African-American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy vote for Republican Dwight Eisenhower for President
September 9, 1957
President Dwight Eisenhower signs Republican Party’s 1957 Civil Rights Act
September 24, 1957
Sparking criticism from Democrats such as Senators John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, President Dwight Eisenhower deploys the 82nd Airborne Division to Little Rock, AR to force Democrat Governor Orval Faubus to integrate public schools
May 6, 1960
President Dwight Eisenhower signs Republicans’ Civil Rights Act of 1960, overcoming 125-hour, around-the-clock filibuster by 18 Senate Democrats
May 2, 1963
Republicans condemn Democrat sheriff of Birmingham, AL for arresting over 2,000 African-American schoolchildren marching for their civil rights
September 29, 1963
Gov. George Wallace (D-AL) defies order by U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson, appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower, to integrate Tuskegee High School
June 9, 1964
Republicans condemn 14-hour filibuster against 1964 Civil Rights Act by U.S. Senator and former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Byrd (D-WV), who still serves in the Senate
June 10, 1964
Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) criticizes Democrat filibuster against 1964 Civil Rights Act, calls on Democrats to stop opposing racial equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was introduced and approved by a staggering majority of Republicans in the Senate. The Act was opposed by most southern Democrat senators, several of whom were proud segregationists—one of them being Al Gore Sr. Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson relied on Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader from Illinois, to get the Act passed.
August 4, 1965
Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) overcomes Democrat attempts to block 1965 Voting Rights Act; 94% of Senate Republicans vote for landmark civil right legislation, while 27% of Democrats oppose. Voting Rights Act of 1965, abolishing literacy tests and other measures devised by Democrats to prevent African-Americans from voting, signed into law; higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats vote in favor
February 19, 1976
President Gerald Ford formally rescinds President Franklin Roosevelt’s notorious Executive Order authorizing internment of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII
September 15, 1981
President Ronald Reagan establishes the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to increase African-American participation in federal education programs
June 29, 1982
President Ronald Reagan signs 25-year extension of 1965 Voting Rights Act
August 10, 1988
President Ronald Reagan signs Civil Liberties Act of 1988, compensating Japanese-Americans for deprivation of civil rights and property during World War II internment ordered by FDR
November 21, 1991
President George H. W. Bush signs Civil Rights Act of 1991 to strengthen federal civil rights legislation
August 20, 1996
Bill authored by U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY) to prohibit racial discrimination in adoptions, part of Republicans’ Contract With America, becomes law
Jonathan Dresner - 1/13/2010
Actually, the double standard on race really cuts the other way, too: liberals (or Democrats, anyway) can't get away with saying anything about race that isn't 100% consistent, whereas conservatives can get away with saying almost anything. But that's not enough: they want to be able to say anything, and that's when they get in trouble.
Edmond Dantes - 1/13/2010
I don't think this issue focuses on racism or a Reid/Lott comparison. This issue focuses on a double standard - liberals can get away with racist comments, but conservatives cannot. It's similar to another double standard - republicans can get away with unpatriotic statements, while democrats cannot.
Per Fagereng - 1/13/2010
I think Senator Reid was trying to say that white Americans would vote for a black candidate if they didn't see him as threatening in some way.
John D. Beatty - 1/13/2010
WE can do no wrong; YOU are all evil racists.
WE are always forgiven after endless yammering about "context" simply wears everyone out until the next news cycle presents another other-wing vilification opportunity.
YOU are just mean-spirited bigots whose every word, thought and deed is contrary to all REAL persons (read, those who don't speak exactly like us), and all deserve destruction instantly upon identification, preferably in an non-obtrusive manner that requires no real activity on our part.
THAT's what YOU mean. One side can say what it wants; the other side cannot.
Hail OUR SIDE! Death to THEIR SIDE!
Michael Furtado - 1/12/2010
People should also look at the context in which each of the comments discussed in this article were made.
Senator Reid's comments, as characterized in the Politico website (In the new book “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Reid is quoted having a private conversation in 2008 saying that America is ready for a black president — particularly one like Obama who is "light-skinned" and lacks "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.") http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0110/31363.html, reflected the Senator's opinion regarding the American electorate in general, not his personal opinion of then-Senator Obama.
Jennifer Mary - 1/11/2010
Thank you for saying it like it is.