The controversy about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is all about a statement he made in 2008 where he was emphasizing the point that Barack Obama had a good chance of becoming president because of his oratory skills, the fact that he was light skinned and did not speak in a "Negro dialect."
Reid showed backward thinking tinged with racism because the statement implied that was why he was comfortable supporting Obama.
Frankly I wish it wasn't true but a lot of President Obama's white voters, I imagine, felt the same way. It shows you how pervasive, entrenched and confusing race is in our nation, a nation still evolving from over 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism. Reid did the right thing when he apologized and Obama was right to accept his apology and call for moving on.
Reid, after all, worked for Obama's election and continues to support his agenda in U.S. Senate. In fact as Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C., pointed out in her press statement, "While Sen. Reid has been producing for African Americans, many of his critics were opposing him on these same issues. Majority Leader Reid has a record. They do not."
The Republicans are pushing for Reid to resign for his racist remark. Of course the Republicans are playing their usual hypocritical role. They're saying that there is a "double standard" because the Democrats called for Republican Trent Lott from Mississippi to resign when he was Senate Majority Leader because of his racist statement of support of staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond.
Lott said at Thurmond's 100th birthday party said, "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either." Lott gave support to Jim Crow racism when praising Thurmond.
For most of his political life, Lott defended racial oppression including segregation, Klan violence and murders that were an everyday part of southern Jim Crow. In 1978, after his election to the U.S. House, Lott led a successful campaign to have the U.S. citizenship of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis restored.
In 1981, when he fought to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a college that among other things prohibited interracial dating at the time, Lott insisted, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy." Lott keynoted a 1992 national meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor organization to the segregationist-era White Citizens Councils, and has a long association with them. The list goes on and on.
There is no way you can compare the insensitive statements of Reid to Lott's public defense of Thurmond and his own long record of racism.
Comparing the two, frankly, is racist. It is a way of playing down the horrible crimes that happened under Jim Crow.
Michael Steele, the African American chair of the Republican National Committee, is leading the charge against Reid. The GOP is out to defeat Reid, who is in a tough reelection fight. The GOP's goal is to weaken the slim two-thirds majority the Democrats have in the Senate in this year's midterm elections. And, no doubt, to punish Reid for the GOP defeat in the health care fight.
But Steele, who is under big criticism from the racists in his own party, needs to clean his own house.
Where was he when his party stole the elections by violating the civil rights of black voters in Florida in 2000? Where was he when they did the same thing in Ohio 2004? Recent polls show that two-thirds of his party does not believe our country's black president is legitimate.
What is Steele saying about the racist attacks prominent elected Republicans are lobbing every day against immigrants?
They talk about Reid's statement, but they have started the Tea Party movement, which makes wild racist insults, false charges and threats against the nation's first African American president, and not a word of protest from Michael Steele or his Republican colleagues.
He heads the National Committee of what is supposed to be a major national party but in 2008 their presidential ticket pulled less than 10% of the black vote and about 25% of the Latino vote. For any decent party claiming to represent the American people that would be a reason to make big changes. But not the Republicans.
Among black, Latino and most white voters it is widely understood that the Republican Party is the party of big business and of racism.
Words do matter and Sen. Reid made a big mistake. But for most people what matters more is action for racial and gender equality. On that score, as the major parties go the Republicans are the worst offenders.
Rep. Barbara Lee of California, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, called on Reid to not step down. She said, "There are too many issues like the economy, job creation and energy for these regrettable comments to distract us."
And that's what the GOP is creating: a distraction from the fight for jobs, peace, and economic and social justice.
Photo: President Obama talks alone with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Oval Office Jan. 23, 2009, a few days after the inauguration. White House photo.