Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What Reid Said

When Eric Holder was elevated to the position of Attorney General of the United States, he admonished all of us to have a "national discussion on race." Openness and honesty, it was implied, should be the hallmarks of the new administration, and the way to get past our national problems with race would be to embrace them, talk them out, and... and what? This would make them magically disappear?

At the time, the inanity of Holder's remarks was already apparent. But in the wake of Reid's "gaffe" it is even clearer. The Democrats do not want a national discussion on race even amongst themselves. Reid's remarks, that Obama was the most viable black Presidential candidate he had seen because he is "light skinned" and because he lacks a "Negro dialect", simply don't imply any racism in Reid. Reid's apologists, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein, gave Reid the maximum latitude any public figure is allowed when talking about race, and even she merely said that he "was mistaken", and that he "misspoke". In other words, Reid's words were wrong, but his actions should vindicate him.

But was Reid, in fact, mistaken? I don't see how. It's simply true that Obama is light skinned, which is not surprising considering his white mother. It's also true that he has a great facility with language and speech, and can speak in dialect and accent ranging from patrician to academic to folksy to pastoral. It is an odd world where speaking truth, especially such neutral-to-complimentary truths, counts as "racist", but that appears to be the world we live in.

Compare what Reid said to Vice President Biden's description of Obama back in 2007: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Even if not racist, Biden's comment is certainly patronizing. And he was taken to task for it, but that didn't stop his later selection as Obama's running mate, or his election to the second-highest job in our federal government.

Certainly it is true, as RNC Chairman Michael Steele pointed out, that were a Republican to "misspeak" like this, he would be drummed out of public life. But that's an old and obvious story. What's interesting here is that not even Harry Reid is allowed to make open, honest, non-patronizing, complimentary statements about race, if those statements imply any difference whatsoever among the races. The rules, really, are simple: Blacks are allowed to speak about races; whites are not. Until that changes, we will never achieve Holder's dreams of openness and honesty.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it's unlikely openness and honesty would do any more good in this realm than in others. Are you completely open and honest to your friends? Your wife? Your kids? Do you tell them about all their perceived flaws? All the problems they cause you? And do they reciprocate? It would be very tiresome and debilitating to have these issues constantly aired in private life, and the same would be true in public. It is difficult enough to achieve the proper balance between frankness and tact within the narrow confines of one's own family; imagine the difficulty in a nation of 300 million.

Even if we won't have total openness, at least it would be nice to rid ourselves of the double standards. As the Reid episode shows, this change isn't imminent.

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