Monday, January 11, 2010

Diversity XIII: Comments and Leadership

For the thirteenth, and thusly unlucky, part of the diversity discussion... I give you Harry Reid, ladies and gentlemen!
The authors quote Reid as saying privately that Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his "light-skinned" appearance and speaking patterns "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
The internet is of divided opinion about whether, as Michael Steele demands, Reid should resign. For instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is, not to mince words, an African-American himself and is probably better to judge the level of offensiveness/impact of Reids words -- TNC says this:

I think you can grant that, in this era, the term "Negro dialect" is racially insensitive and embarrassing. That said, the fair-mind listener understands the argument--Barack Obama's complexion and his ability to code-switch is an asset. You can quibble about the "light skin" part, but forget running for president, code-switching is the standard M.O. for any African American with middle class aspirations.

But there's no such defense for Trent Lott. Lott celebrated apartheid Mississippi's support of Strom Thurmond, and then said that had Thurmond won, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years.'' Strom Thurmond run for president, specifically because he opposed Harry Truman's efforts at integration. This is not mere conjecture--nearly half of Thurmond's platform was dedicated to preserving segregation. The Dixiecrat slogan was "Segregation Forever!" (Exclamation point, theirs.) Trent Lott's wasn't forced to resign because he said something "racially insensitive." He was forced to resign because he offered tacit endorsement of white supremacy--frequently.
The distinction TNC is making is one I made before in an old post called Hard Racism vs. Soft Racism; actual hate as compared with racial insensitivity:

"Hard" racism is an extreme form of racism. "Hard" racism is holding the belief that one or more races are inferior to one or more races. Adolf Hitler was a hard racist. Racial eugenicists are hard racists. Jim Crow Laws are hard racist laws. They codify the notion that one race of people is objectively (in their eyes) worse than another race of people. People who speak hard racism aloud are tagged, unequivocally, as bigots.

Today, we don't see nearly as much of that. But what we do see is a lot more of "soft" racism. "Soft" racism is hard to define. "Soft" racism is non-absolute; it does not hold that one race is absolutely worse than another. But it has a lot of negative connections with a race. One type of soft racism is ignorance. Another sort of soft racism is resentment.


[S]oft racism can usually be bridged by better communication, more cooperation, and more information.
TNC is right; what Trent Lott said was hard racism in gloves; the feeling that the Segregationalist candidate (who was definitely a hard racist) should have won is not the same as some outdated and insensitive language.


I do not agree, as Isaac seems to be leaning, and as folks like TNC or Ezra Klein seem to be holding, that Reid shouldn't resign as Majority leader.

Now, let's make a quick distinction: Reid has three choices ahead of him: to step down as majority leader, to step down from the senate, or to apologize and move on. He appears to be taking option three.

Now, Trent Lott took option one. I think what was morally obligated of Trent Lott was to take option two, and resign from the senate completely. He was a bigot, and there should be no room in the Senate for bigots. Strom Thurmond should have been long gone too, but I guess bigots like Lott and Thurmond still represent their states adequately enough for their states' tastes.

I think Reid should take option one. I don't think he did something inexcusable. But when we look to our leadership, we demand something more than just actions that are "excusable." We demand leadership that is to be looked up to -- in fact, that leads.

If these comments reveal anything, it is that Harry Reid is behind the times. And we, as Democrats (if you are a Democrat, that is, o hypothetical reader) should push for a majority leader who best represents where we are now, where we are today.

Obama had a very stirring (for me at least) passage in his book Audacity of Hope where he describes going to meet Senator Robert Byrd who, many years ago, was a white supremacist. Many people told him to snub Byrd and skip the meeting. He went to the meeting, and he got some sort of a pseudo-apology, and Byrd basically acknowledged "I was wrong, I was behind the times." That's very laudable of Byrd to realize. But he's not the man I want leading our party.

Think of it from the perspective of a young, capable black man who might want to run for office. If the Democratic party is willing to tolerate leadership who are insensitive on the issue of race, who are clearly outdated, then we're going to lose some of those talented people, who don't want to be part of an organization that tolerates that. They're not going to feel represented.

And I don't want to hear the phrase "How could they think that -- we elected Barack Obama President." We don't just prove these things once. We have to prove them every day.

As a for instance, when Proposition 8 passed in California, the aftermath claimed the job of artistic director Scott Eckern who had donated to the pro-Prop 8 campaign in accordance with his Mormon faith. I think that was the right choice for the California Musical Theatre. As an organization, they have the choice of leaders to present to the community. They communicate their values as an organization through who they put forward as a "leader."

The word "leadership" means something.