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Unpacking Harry Reid's "Racist" Comments

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Updated 6:09 p.m. Eastern Time

There was a moment in Sunday night's "60 Minutes" piece on revelations from the 2008 presidential campaign in which Steve Schmidt, John McCain's former top campaign strategist, was asked if the choice of Sarah Palin "was about winning an election, not necessarily about who's gonna be best as vice president."

"My job was to give political advice," Schmidt responded. "We needed to do something bold to try to win the race." (More from "60 Minutes")

That exchange is worth remembering when considering the controversy that broke over the weekend involving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, it was revealed, privately stated that he believed Barack Obama was well suited to a presidential run because he is a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Reid, an early Obama backer, immediately apologized "for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans for my improper comments," but that didn't stop Republicans from pouncing on the comments and calling for Reid's resignation from the Senate leadership. They drew comparisons to Trent Lott's 2002 comments that America would have been better off had then-segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948, which resulted in Lott being forced to leave the GOP leadership.

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There was a clear difference between the comments, of course: While Lott's words could be interpreted as an argument that segregationist policies would have been better for America than the alternative, Reid was discussing a political calculus. Like Schmidt, his thinking seemed largely confined to the realm of politics.

On NBC's "Today" show Monday, Matt Lauer asked PBS' Gwen Ifill this question: "Isn't Harry Reid implying that a dark-skinned African American who speaks in a way that some would consider more stereotypical would not be electable?"

Ifill's response? Well, yes. Because it's true.

"There is actual political science that backs that up," said Ifill, who is black. "I don't know that Harry Reid has read it, and what Harry Reid said was certainly impolitic, at least, but there is evidence to support that people – whether it is a matter of voting for a white candidate or voting for a black candidate – if a person is very much different than who they are, or what they perceive the mainstream to be, they are less likely to vote for that person."

Indeed, what Reid has now said publicly is what everyone in Washington was saying privately as Mr. Obama prepared his run – it's just that he seems to be the only one whose words eventually became public.

Well, maybe not the only one: The best comparison to Reid's comments is not what Lott said but rather comments by then-candidate Joe Biden, who in 2007 said Mr. Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Biden came under criticism for the comment, but the controversy didn't endure – and Biden, of course, has gone on to have a pretty close relationship with Mr. Obama.

Reid was right to apologize for his comments: As we've seen with the recent census flap, many are offended by the word "negro," and notions of "light skin" and a certain type of black dialect raise legitimate questions about America's still-unsettled relationship with race. (Wrote black historian Blair LM Kelley: "I find it horrifying that fair-skinned blacks are seen as more acceptable candidates in the 21st century.")

But Mr. Obama is too savvy a politician not to see the basic truth in Reid's comments, which is part of the reason why he was quick to accept his apology. (It also didn't hurt, of course, that Mr. Obama needs Reid in place for final passage of the health care bill, along with a host of other issues.)

"This is a good man who's always been on the right side of history," Mr. Obama told Roland Martin Monday afternoon. "For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense. He apologized, recognizing that he didn't use appropriate language, but there was nothing mean-spirited in what he had to say and he's always been on the right side of the issues."

On "Today," Ifill essentially made Reid's argument (using more appropriate language), stating that someone who looks and sounds like Al Sharpton is a harder sell to the American people than someone who looks and sounds like Mr. Obama. (Notably, Sharpton is among the black leaders who are largely backing Reid.)

Or, as Joan Walsh of the liberal online magazine Salon put it: "if progressive racial-justice Democrats don't think politicians of every race size up the field in terms of competitive advantage -- and sadly, even today, accord advantage to African-Americans who put white folks at ease, speak 'white' or 'standard' English, and even, yes, look 'less non-white' -- we're kidding ourselves."

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