WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s remarks about Barack Obama, only the latest such eruption since America’s first Black president took office a year ago, probably say more about the state of race relations in the United States than they do about Obama.
The political uproar, not unexpected in today’s fiercely partisan climate, flared immediately. But less examined is what Reid’s words say about the latent and overt racism that envelops Obama and the country. The nation is far from the post-racial era some thought had dawned with the 2008 election.
Reid, D-Nev., has not disputed a new book that quotes him as saying during the campaign that he thought Obama was a good candidate because he was a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Republicans are crying foul, insisting Reid lose his Senate leadership job. That’s what happened to Republican Senate leader Trent Lott of Mississippi when he suggested in 2002 that a 1948 presidential victory for segregationist Strom Thurmond would have been a good thing for the country.
Reid has twice apologized. Obama has said the matter is closed. But in or out of context, those are tough words to explain.
“By saying what Reid said, are you then proposing, ‘Obama shouldn’t have been elected if he was darker-skinned and spoke with an African-American dialect?'” said Anita L. Allen, the first tenured Black female professor at the University of Pennsylvania law school.
She was quick to say Reid’s remarks did not offend her, but the reaction to them showed that “race unfortunately is not the thing we thought it was – a problem to be overcome. There was the false expectation that putting a very competent black man at the helm would solve our problems, racial or otherwise.”
That pretty well sums up the periodic outbreak of race-related remarks during Obama’s candidacy and first year in office, among them:
- In an upcoming interview in Esquire magazine, ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich claimed he’s “blacker than Barack Obama.” He apologized Monday for equating his childhood of shining shoes with the president.
- Obama was heavily criticized for the “Beer Summit” to mediate between a Black Harvard professor and a White policeman who arrested the respected scholar after he broke into his own home. Obama called the two together for a beer after saying the police had “acted stupidly.” He later said he should not have made that judgment without knowing all the facts.
- Former Democratic President Jimmy Carter made a point after Obama’s inauguration of blaming racism as the motivation of much of the opposition to Obama policy initiatives.
- Joe Biden, when he was still challenging Obama for the nomination, said the Illinois senator was “the first mainstream African-American (presidential candidate) who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Obama later picked Biden to be his running mate.
- Racially charged remarks by Obama’s Chicago pastor nearly derailed his candidacy, forcing the candidate to give his Philadelphia speech that was broadly hailed as a defining exposition of relations among the races in the U.S.
Through it all, Obama has largely sought to ignore or downplay his race and what others say about it. But the racially tinged outbursts have served as major distractions for a president pushing a provocative legislative agenda, struggling with an economy still teetering between recession and recovery, and overseeing two unpopular wars while battling an Islamic militancy determined to inflict pain on the United States.
It’s impossible to speculate on how those distractions have weighed on Obama. He doesn’t say. It’s certain they have cost him valuable time.