Why Michael Steele Is Wrong About Harry Reid

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

GOP Chairman Michael Steele and other leading Republicans have called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to resign for suggesting in 2008 that then-Sen. Barack Obama had better chances of winning the presidency because he was "light-skinned" and didn't speak with a "Negro dialect."

On Fox News Sunday, Steele said, "There is this standard where Democrats feel that they can say these things, and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it is racism."

Similarly, in a written statement, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said "In 2002, Democrats expressed outrage at Senator Lott and called on him to step down as leader. That same standard should be applied to Senator Reid and his embarrassing and racially insensitive statements…"

Steele’s and Cornyn's comments argue for "moral equivalence" between Reid's statement and then-Sen. Trent Lott's. But Steele and Cornyn are wrong. (Moreover, Steele and Cornyn aren't just wrong, they're also hypocrites for advocating precisely the opposite positions from when Lott was in hot water.)

Ironically, conservative intellectuals have argued against notions of "moral equivalence" for decades. Echoing those critiques, it is possible to establish a reasoned moral hierarchy between Reid's comments and Lott's. Looking at the content, context and intention of the statements, it's clear that the two cases are not equivalent and offer no evidence of a double standard at work. 

In content, Reid argued that a black candidate has better odds of winning if he is "light-skinned" and doesn't speak in "Negro dialect." As I argued in my piece "Was Harry Reid Right?," scholarly research and common sense suggest both statements are true. Though many commentators have interpreted Reid's remarks as approval of racial bias in America, the quoted statement suggests nothing of the sort. There's a difference between observing a fact about how voters discriminate and agreeing with the discrimination. Or, put another way, talking about race is not the same as saying something racist.

Contrast that with Lott, who at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party (broadcast on C-SPAN), 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." There is no way around the fact that Lott was strongly endorsing Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrat Party, which broke away from the Democrats in 1948. At the time, Thurmond's party platform included the statement, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." In sum, Lott's speech supported an explicitly racist party and movement without any reservations.

Moral equivalence? Nope.

For context, consider Reid, who has no long history of making racially biased comments or "proudly" associating with bigots (though, I'm curious about what Reid, who is a Mormon, has to say about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ racist past). Even Reid's antiquated use of "Negro" isn't in-and-of-itself problematic. (See The United Negro College Fund or the National Council of Negro Women.) "Negro" can be a term of endearment from one person and an epithet from another. As I read Reid, he's simply looking for a way to refer to the distinctive intonations and pronunciations of black English. If there's evidence to the contrary, I'd like to see it. More broadly, since the mid-1960s, Democrats have largely avoided appealing to anti-black sentiment in their campaigns and policies.

Lott, on the other hand, had a 40-year history of affiliating with groups that endorse racial segregation, condemn intermarriage and oppose immigration by non-whites. In particular, Lott was a longtime member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a spinoff of the Southern white Citizens Councils that were known as the "uptown Klan." Lott spoke at their 1992 national convention and received them in his Washington office in 1997. And more generally, Republicans, though the party of Lincoln, have over the last half-century regularly appealed to anti-black sentiment in their campaigns and policies. The most famous example was George Bush's Willie Horton ad, but other examples abound. (Bob Corker's ad against Harold Ford in 2006 is a recent example.) Guilt by association would be unacceptable in a courtroom, but it's completely reasonable to look at the totality of someone's behavior over decades in evaluating fitness for national leadership. Lott's lifetime of personal associations and party activity regularly involved harnessing racial antipathy for political gain.

Moral equivalence? Not a bit.

Just as conservative jurists attempt to divine original intent when evaluating legal doctrine, Reid's and Lott's respective intentions matter, too. On the whole, Reid's comments appear to be explanatory rather than derogatory. Reid, who endorsed Obama before his 2008 statement, doesn't offer any indication of malice or mockery in his descriptions of the candidate (as compared, say, with Rush Limbaugh's broadcast of "Barack the Magic Negro").

While Lott didn't exhibit any viciousness, he celebrated a segregationist's heyday. Lott's intent appeared to both praise Thurmond and rewrite the history of racial subjugation in America. If he cared to, Lott could have done the former without descending to the latter. Lionizing an old ally on his 100th birthday is defensible. Valorizing his bigotry is not.  

All of us harbor bias and we all make mistakes. As thinking adults, however, we can make distinctions between petty prejudices (say, Biden describing Obama as “clean” and “articulate”) and deeper discrimination. Actions do speak louder than words but, when evaluating language, the content, context and intention matter, too. Steele’s and Cornyn's call for Reid's resignation ignores all nuance and complexity (as, sadly, does most of the media coverage). Rather than championing a false moral equivalence of racisms, Steele and Cornyn would do well to return to their conservative intellectual roots.


Omar Wasow is a Ph.D. Candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He was the co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics. His research focuses on race and politics, protest movements and statistical methods. Before joining the academy, Omar served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.