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A Closer Look: The political lynching of Harry Reid

By Wallace Kaufman
Posted Saturday, January 16, 2010

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When Barack Obama was neck-in-neck with Hillary Clinton racing for the Democratic nomination for president, one of his earliest supporters, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said in a private conversation that Obama could win the presidency. One of his reasons was that Obama was “light skinned” and "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one."

Political thunder rolled and lightning flashed as posses of liberals and conservatives threw their nooses around Reid's neck. Reid issued a quick and humble apology to the President. Democrats pardoned him. Republicans charged bigotry and double standard. Reid continued to grovel in public regret. Seldom have we been treated to such bipartisan demagoguery. Reid did nothing wrong. He was within his rights and he was right.

Pause to ask just where in his remarks he sinned.

Reid had the facts right: Obama, whose mother was white and father black, is light skinned. Second, he does not speak with any accent identified with black Americans. Can Obama use African American accents? Sure he can, and like all of us, he sometimes changes his vocabulary or pronunciation to fit in with friends or ‘the crowd’.

That leaves us to ask if Reid’s offense was implying that these qualities of Obama made him more acceptable than someone dark colored like Dr. Thomas Sowell the economist, Condaleeza Rice, or Smokin’ Joe Frazier the boxer. That suggestion could offend by suggesting that Obama would receive votes because of accent and skin color, not by earning those votes. But don’t American blacks themselves talk about the advantage some have by being lighter skinned? Perhaps Reid offended black Americans who are darker and speak with pronunciation common if you listen to the Jeffersons or Sticky Fingaz or Magic Johnson or Al Sharpton.

Many claim the worst offense was the use of the word “Negro.” But it’s a word used by many black Americans. It’s the customary word to describe the accent that Obama doesn’t have. The only poor choice in the phrase was dialect instead of accent, and that’s an ignorance of linguistics, not bigotry.

Or perhaps Reid offended the American public in general—implying that skin color and accent play a role in the public’s judgment of a candidate. They do, of course. Are we not allowed to say so? Aren’t we constantly told that racism is still alive in America?

Does anyone doubt that a significant number of votes are influenced by how a candidate talks and by skin color? Even Vice President Joe Biden opined that Barack Obama would win votes because he was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

But Reid didn’t apologize to all voters, or black Americans. He apologized to President Obama. Yet certainly the President, who had no record of big accomplishments in or out of politics, won a lot of votes by being articulate, easy to understand, and by not fitting the unfortunate stereotypes of black Americans. He also won a lot of votes because as Joe Biden suggested, many Americans (and most blacks) wanted a black president and he fit their comfort zone in most ways.

What we should lament most loudly is that when Harry Reid speaks a clear truth he has been pilloried by everyone, and that Republicans, acting like politically correct liberals, make Reid’s truth a bigger shame than his lies.

And even more important, when speaking the truth in a private conversation becomes a matter for public shaming and persecution, America is in deep doo doo. The Democrat pardon reinforces their role as self-appointed censors. If Republicans want to shame Reid, they should first support him for speaking the truth, then point out how he has turned the exercise of a fundamental right into the occasion for a groveling apology.

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A Closer Look: The political lynching of Harry Reid