In their new book Game Change about the 2008 presidential campaign, authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that in a private conversation in 2008 Senator Reid said he,
was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’ “
Reid apologized for his comments. Obama accepted the apology. So it’s no big deal. Some Republicans want Reid to resign. Most Democrats are rallying behind Reid. This is politics as usual; the typical Washington game of “gotcha.” Once again, no big deal.
I also see this, sadly, as America as usual, which is the really big deal. We see the news item. We form our opinion. We may post it on our Facebook page or we may (more likely) just go back to watching TV. What we don’t do is dig more deeply into the festering wound that lurks buried beneath these kinds of comments.
If you are of European descent, as I am, I encourage you to ask yourself a few questions:
2) Am I more comfortable with Obama because he talks more like me than these other former candidates for President?
3) Did the fact that his mother is white and his father is from Kenya impact my thinking on some level?
This episode is a great opportunity to see how the privileges that white people possess and take for granted play out in the political arena and in every day life. When Senator Reid says “the country” was ready to embrace a black candidate like Obama what lurks beneath his comment is “white people in the United States.” Don’t you suppose that people of color have been hoping to see a President of color pretty much forever?
When I participated in the journey that resulted in my cousin Katrina Browne’s film Traces of the Trade, and in my writing Inheriting the Trade, my cousin Elly Hale pointed out something that went to the core of this issue. When discussing how people describe themselves ethnically in the United States (African American, Mexican, Asian, etc), we white folks don’t tend to have a naturally easy descriptor. We’re, well, “white”. Elly said, “We are the default color” in the USA.
In other words, white people have been socialized to consider ourselves “the norm.” Anyone else is “other.” And “the norm” people have the privilege of defining what we are “ready to embrace.” Unless we are forced to do otherwise–ala the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s–it is indeed rare in history that anything else will be embraced.
Folks, this is a perfect example of white privilege. If white people will take some time to think deeply about Senator Reid’s comments, we will see just how systemic and ubiquitous issues of bias and discrimination based on skin color or ethnicity truly are in the United States. This is a teaching moment far less murky for most of us than was the “beer summit” between our black president, a black Harvard professor, and a white Cambridge police officer.
As difficult as things are these days with the lousy economy, multiple wars, the threat of terrorism, and concerns about the environment, these are but symptoms. Harry Reid’s comment is also a symptom.
The disease is the lingering impact of injustice and inequity in the United States and around the world. The disease is systemic racism that bestows and sustains privileges upon some at the expense of others.
Until we commit to addressing the disease we’ll continue to just pick at the scabs on the surface, argue with each other, and change very little other than the channel on the TV.
That, my friends, is the big deal.