THE BLOG

Remnants of Old Racism

05/25/2011 03:10 pm ET
  • Bob Franken Syndicated columnist. Appears on MSNBC and is a member of SPJ Washington Hall of Fame


Experience is constantly given short shrift. All too often, the ones who don't have it belittle the value of life and work's hard lessons.

But sometimes those who have accumulated them haven't learned as much as they should. The comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2008 that Barack Obama would succeed because he was "light-skinned" with "no Negro dialect" are a case in point.

His remarks were disclosed in an about-to-be-released new book "Game Change", by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Once they became public, Reid immediately apologized profusely, but he's not the only offender.

Then candidate Joe Biden's description of Obama as "An African-American who is articulate and bright and clean..." would certainly fit the bill. So would the barbs from former President Bill Clinton during the campaign that caused such an uproar for suggestions of bigotry.

All reflect the awkwardness with race that afflicts whites from the last generation who witnessed and supported the wrenching transition for blacks from oppression part way to mainstream inclusion.

By the way, the comparisons between the opinion expressed by Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid and a line that resulted in the downfall of Republican Leader Trent Lott in 2002 are partisan nonsense.

Let's recall that Lott was bemoaning the fact that Strom Thurmond hadn't been elected President when Thurmond ran in 1948, as an arch-segregationist. Reid was complimenting the African-American who was running for President, in a remarkably clumsy fashion, to be sure. But he didn't seem to be pining for the good old days of American apartheid in the way Lott seemed to be.

Still he and all those who took part in the movement, or at least didn't stand in the way, continue to struggle with nuanced stereotypes and misunderstandings that were considered fact just a few decades ago.

Sometimes prejudice is subtle, and deeply ingrained, scattered through the mind during one's formative years. No matter what their history of goodwill, many still grapple with its remnants.

Today's adult-wannabees didn't witness these battles, they only see the fruits of the victories. They don't give a second thought to living in multicolored surroundings because they grew up in them, unaware of what it took to undo some of the country's sorry oppression.

On the one hand it's a crying shame they're so oblivious, on the other it's wonderful that diversity is such a given...there are not even memories of anything different.

Score one for those who are growing up unencumbered by the myths of ignorance that infected the last generation. They must hear the ramblings of the Reids, or Bidens, or Clintons, or their own parents, and wonder "What the hell are they talking about"?.

They are talking about those leftovers that still hide in the subconscious and escape every once in awhile when even someone of documented goodwill dredges up an old buried bias and blurts out something stupid.

Not all experience is beneficial. Usually, though, it's better than too little experience. You need a lot of it to know how to separate the good from the bad. But we must never forget there's always more to learn. And unlearn.