What's Been Missed In The Harry Reid 'Negro' Comment

This past weekend it was revealed that Harry Reid in 2008 referred to then-Senator Obama as "light skinned" and "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."  The reaction to these revelations came as expected: Republicans called for Reid to resign from his leadership position, while Democrats circled the wagons around the Senate Majority Leader.  Despite their criticisms, Republicans have missed the full meaning of Reid's statement in 2008 as well as his recent clarification.

While the immediate acceptance of Reid's apology from those who censured Rush Limbaugh's attempt to buy an NFL franchise is striking, the last part of Reid's comment and his subsequent statement from over the weekend give away his original motive.  In his comments the Senate Majority Leader explicitly acknowledged that using race is a valuable instrument in the Democratic political playbook.  When Reid noted that President Obama had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" he recognized the ability to fluctuate racial accents as a political asset.  In his apology he only regretted "using such a poor choice of words" not the meaning of the statement itself.  In the defense of the Nevada senator, other liberals have only reinforced Reid's admission.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine confessed that Reid's "Negro dialect" comments were just calculations when he defended the Senator by saying, "I think if you look at the reports as I have, it was all in the context of saying positive things about Senator Obama. It definitely was in the context of recognizing in Senator Obama a great candidate and future president."  Kaine appears to agree with Reid -- Obama's ability to have or not to have a "Negro dialect" was believed to be a blessing during the campaign.  This helped make him "a great candidate and a future president."

Kaine has not been alone in recognizing that Reid acted with political acuity instead of with racism when he made his comments.  As Boyce Watkins wrote on his website, "I don't think that Senator Harry Reid is a racist. Although Reid seemed to think that President Obama could win the election because he is ‘light-skinned' and speaks with very little ‘Negro dialect,' he wasn't necessarily giving his own opinion. Rather, he was giving his assessment of the preferences of the American public." 

Dr. Watkins explained that Reid acts as a "bellwether of public opinion and an accurate reflection of the ‘political pulse' of the white American voting population."  Though this remains up for debate, Watkins undoubtedly perceives Reid's statements as purely politically driven and without racist intent. He believes Reid simply recognized Obama's ability to use race as part of his political strategy.

As others and I have expressed, throughout the year Democrats have had a penchant for using race as a way to attack their conservative critics instead of engaging with real opposition to their programs.  Instead of just demanding that Harry Reid resign from his leadership of the Senate, after all he is not going anywhere, conservatives should remember his words as an acknowledgement that many Democrats see racial diversity as a political weapon to exploit--not something that makes the United States a unique place among the world.  It's an opportunity not to only show the hypocrisy of one senator, but shed light on the racial cynicism found by some members of an entire party.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and studies nineteenth-century American politics.
This past weekend it was revealed that Harry Reid in 2008 referred to then-Senator Obama as "light skinned" and "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."  The reaction to these revelations came as expected: Republicans called for Reid to resign from his leadership position, while Democrats circled the wagons around the Senate Majority Leader.  Despite their criticisms, Republicans have missed the full meaning of Reid's statement in 2008 as well as his recent clarification.

While the immediate acceptance of Reid's apology from those who censured Rush Limbaugh's attempt to buy an NFL franchise is striking, the last part of Reid's comment and his subsequent statement from over the weekend give away his original motive.  In his comments the Senate Majority Leader explicitly acknowledged that using race is a valuable instrument in the Democratic political playbook.  When Reid noted that President Obama had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" he recognized the ability to fluctuate racial accents as a political asset.  In his apology he only regretted "using such a poor choice of words" not the meaning of the statement itself.  In the defense of the Nevada senator, other liberals have only reinforced Reid's admission.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine confessed that Reid's "Negro dialect" comments were just calculations when he defended the Senator by saying, "I think if you look at the reports as I have, it was all in the context of saying positive things about Senator Obama. It definitely was in the context of recognizing in Senator Obama a great candidate and future president."  Kaine appears to agree with Reid -- Obama's ability to have or not to have a "Negro dialect" was believed to be a blessing during the campaign.  This helped make him "a great candidate and a future president."

Kaine has not been alone in recognizing that Reid acted with political acuity instead of with racism when he made his comments.  As Boyce Watkins wrote on his website, "I don't think that Senator Harry Reid is a racist. Although Reid seemed to think that President Obama could win the election because he is ‘light-skinned' and speaks with very little ‘Negro dialect,' he wasn't necessarily giving his own opinion. Rather, he was giving his assessment of the preferences of the American public." 

Dr. Watkins explained that Reid acts as a "bellwether of public opinion and an accurate reflection of the ‘political pulse' of the white American voting population."  Though this remains up for debate, Watkins undoubtedly perceives Reid's statements as purely politically driven and without racist intent. He believes Reid simply recognized Obama's ability to use race as part of his political strategy.

As others and I have expressed, throughout the year Democrats have had a penchant for using race as a way to attack their conservative critics instead of engaging with real opposition to their programs.  Instead of just demanding that Harry Reid resign from his leadership of the Senate, after all he is not going anywhere, conservatives should remember his words as an acknowledgement that many Democrats see racial diversity as a political weapon to exploit--not something that makes the United States a unique place among the world.  It's an opportunity not to only show the hypocrisy of one senator, but shed light on the racial cynicism found by some members of an entire party.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and studies nineteenth-century American politics.