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:
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.
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Could training in implicit bias be helpful at your institution?