So for the last week or so the big stupid political hubbub of the week has been the fact that in a private conversation two years ago Harry Reid said that white people don’t generally want to vote for black people, and that lighter-skinned black people generally do better electorally with whites than dark-skinned people, and also that Barack Obama can speak both in White Person and Black Person. All of this is of course unquestionably true (there have been studies conducted to demonstrate the first two issues, and anybody who’s seen Obama in both modes knows that the last is accurate), but Reid also called Obama a “Negro” and that’s kind of weird so everybody had at it.
And the really fun thing is that right-wingers are going on TV to complain about Reid getting a double standard because when Trent Lott said things would be better if Strom “there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches” Thurmond had been elected President, people got all offended. And they don’t understand why all those liberals got pissed about Trent Lott and don’t care about Harry Reid, so they’ve jumped to their stock accusation of hypocrisy.
Here’s the thing. Nobody really gets upset when somebody just says something stupid. We might make fun of them, and I’m sure Reid can take some mockery, but what it boils down to is that Reid said something entirely true with clumsy archaic phrasing that might be construed as offensive while in a private conversation. When the sentence was made public, he immediately apologized. For people who might be offended, that’s generally good enough, because Reid’s got a good record on civil rights (as the Congressional Black Caucus made quite clear this weekend when they gave him their full support). If somebody who by dint of his actions has made it clear he supports your causes says something stupid or offensive then apologizes, there’s no real reason to hang him out to dry.
Of course, the right seems determined to claim that forgiving Reid when other, right-wing pols who have made racist statements is hypocritical, and the reason they do that is because they quite simply don’t understand why the left gets offended by one and not the other. To them, this is about the statement. The actual sentence. They think that’s the reason people get upset: the words in question. (This is also the reason why the right wing thinks making fun of “political correctness” is hilarious. Most of them genuinely don’t know that the term originated on the left-hand side to specifically describe people who talked the talk about inclusivity but didn’t walk the walk, and only later became a catchphrase for the silly “non-offensive” phrasing the term was originally intended to criticize.)
But here’s the thing. You know that old Avenue Q song, “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist”? It’s true – everybody is, and most people get that. Nobody’s perfect. We can forgive people’s slip-ups, when they’re slip-ups. But when a Trent Lott or a George Allen or a Rush Limbaugh says something racist, it’s not about this one occasion of them saying something offensive; it’s about the fact that these foul fucking bigots, who by their personal histories of action have made it clear that they’re perfectly willing to judge people on the basis of skin colour – these assholes have achieved public prominence without having been made to feel shame, or at least having been publicly shamed for their loathsome beliefs. They deserve that shame, and they don’t get it, and then they have the temerity to make clear how little they think of the public at large by cheerfully saying how great it would be if Strom Thurmond had been elected our first official segregationist president, or calling a black guy at a rally a racial slur, or suggesting that a great black quarterback is only esteemed because he’s black.
That’s why Lott was offensive and Reid wasn’t: deeds, not words. Maybe one day the right will get that. But I’m not holding my breath, because really, all they’re interested in on this issue is juvenilia and playing gotcha, because that’s all they think it is. They don’t get it, and that’s just sad.