Monday, January 11, 2010
Reid, race and Nat X
I’m always flabbergasted when a politician, a breed renown for fibbing, gets in trouble for telling the truth.
That’s what’s happening with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. Here’s what he’s quoted as saying about why he thought then-candidate Barack Obama could win the presidency:
He’s “light-skinned” and “does not use a Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”
This has produced a typical beltway firestorm with Republicans crying double standard and Democrats, Obama included, saying Reid’s record and subsequent apology are sufficient. Move on.
Not me. I’m not budging. I want to hash this out.
Apparently, and I’m still not sure about this, but the offending terms are “light-skinned” and “Negro.”
His comment addresses a segment of the voting population with which I’m familiar. He’s talking about the ignorant redneck. He’s saying, with accuracy, that many voters would reject Obama if he looked or sounded like, say, Nat X.
That was the uproarious Chris Rock character from the early 1990s recurring Saturday Night Live sketch “The Dark Side with Nat X.” Nat satirized an angry cable talk show host who saw every issue through the dark prism of race.
He had a defiant afro and was, according to his intro, “a man so black he sweats tar.” He always greeted guests by saying, “Sit yo’ ass down!” in what Reid would call a “Negro dialect.”
In politics, near majorities of Americans will vote for boring white guys who make even Mr. Rogers look urban. I’m thinking Mitt Romney or Al Gore.
But I do not foresee a demographic shift so dramatic that a majority of people will vote for a man like Nat X to lead.
We like to pretend we live in enlightened times. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The media said race was the ugly undercurrent of the 2008 presidential race and in places like the trendy salons of Georgetown that may have been so.
But it wasn’t an undercurrent where I live. It was a rip tide. And the people who were opposed to Barack Hussein Obama didn’t use an archaic word like “Negro.”
No, they used the word that got Det. Mark Furman into so much trouble during the O.J. Simpson trial. And they didn’t whisper it. They said it with gusto.
Those raging political conversations always reminded me of the scenes from “Blazing Saddles” where the good people of Rock Ridge first spy the new sheriff (Cleavon Little), a man who looked more like Nat X than Barack O.
What’s their reaction? They reflexively want to kill him. Right away.
Here in my little Rock Ridge corner of western Pennsylvania many of them still feel that way about our president. Some of them even feel that way about Steeler coach Mike Tomlin. They’re infuriated that proud black men are in positions of authority over institutions they thought belonged exclusively to them and their kind.
This country is full to busting with people who hate someone because of how they look, who they love and who they worship. It’s like that all over the world.
Reid was making the political calculation that enough of these people would find Obama acceptable enough that he could be elected America’s first black president.
This differs from the Trent Lott dismissal in that Lott was saying, gimme that old time religion, America would have been better off if it had elected an avowed racist like Strom Thurmond president in 1948.
And so Reid spent the weekend calling black men and women who support an organization that still goes by the puzzling name National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to apologize for describing African Americans with the once acceptable word Negro.
The whole exercise makes me dizzy.
I’m sure we’ll some day get past this semantic sort of silliness to a day when we can speak the truth without fearing talking point reprisals.
A day when we can all call a spade a spade.
And, please, don’t read too much into that last phrase. It’s just a handy cliche from a confused man so white he sweats whole milk.