OK, our periodic catharsis of hypocrisy on race relations in America is on exhibit again and again it's the subject of intense media public discussion. Physical segregated structures for water drinking fountains used by politicians in Washington, DC no longer exist. But so many public officials in the media and government still seem to be drinking different water than the most of us when it comes to a frank and honest discussion about race.
Let me state at outset: What the White, 70-year-old Senate majority leader Harry Reid said about Obama's abilities and the possibility of his being elected as America's first African-American President was not so outrageous. Do we really believe that Reid's words have never been thought of or spoken before by White and Black people in America?
Reid's comments were in response to questions from two reporters who were writing a book about the 2008 national presidential election. Senator Reid apparently was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts; and, believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama. Privately, he confided to the two reporters that he believed additionally that "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.' Wow, imagine that. He actually spoke those words.
The statements of public "outrage" and criticism of Senator Reid, especially by Washington, DC politicians, Black and White, are simply a denial of the reality of the racial psyche or mindset long extant in America. Conservative commentator and writer George Wills was more right than wrong when he said "I don't think there's a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said. At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with, and he gets in trouble for it."
We don't proffer George Wills as the ultimate judge about the presence or lack of racism in Harry Reid. We do, however, applaud and commend his apparent effort to be clinically objective and avoid the knee-jerk participation in the media circus and political hypocrisy about race in America. How many White politicians in America are free of any "scintilla of racism"? Few, if any.
Except for Republican politicians afflicted with racial amnesia, no one is suggesting that Senator Reid's comments about Obama diminishes his long consistent record of commitment to civil rights and other initiatives empowering opportunities for African-Americans.
If we stop the fantasy and hypocrisy we can admit that it is more likely than not that most White people, and a substantial number of African-Americans in our country, especially over the age of 50, say or think privately or in public exactly, or substantially similar, to what Senator Reid said in our age of continuing racial hypocrisy in America. We should hope there are more, not less, Harry Reids in the United States Senate.
And, by the way, since when does the current use or reference to the word "Negro" carry such irreversible opprobrium? It is a word reflective of an historical racial fact in America. Do white or black persons who support the National Council of Negro Women, The United Negro College Fund, or the National Association of Colored People actively foster or perpetuate racism in the United States?
The critics of Senator Harry Reid are directing their attention and criticism in the wrong direction at the wrong time. This is the week of the 81st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The following week we observe a commemorative national holiday weekend celebrating his birth and contributions to our country. The hoopla over Senator's Reid's comments within the context of our national observance of Dr. King's birthday provides President Obama with an historic and unique opportunity to initiate a "teachable moment" on race relations in America.
Those of you who have followed earlier blog posts by me know that I recommended the same initiative last year to President Obama in lieu of the awkward PR of the Beer Summit on the White House lawn following the incident with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, MA police.
The fact that Mr. Obama is our first bi-racial and African-American president, in and of itself, is the not the reason he should use the national media and political reaction to the comments of Harry Reid as a "teachable moment." No, the reason remains essential even if he were not an African-American president: America remains spiritually, intellectually and morally shackled by the chains from the legacy of race relations in America following the institution of slavery, the Civil War, and decades of segregation in the 20th century.
Candidate Senator Obama thought the national fallout following incendiary remarks by Rev. Jeremiah Wright were so important and potentially dangerous to his candidacy that he addressed and confronted publicly the issue of race in America by writing and delivering a special speech in Philadelphia during the Presidential primaries. This speech is widely credited with saving the viability of his candidacy for President. Now that he is President, the "War with Al Qaeda," the jobs crisis, health care, banking regulations, climate change, energy conservation, revamping public education, and other policy issues suggest that he needs once again to focus national attention on this latest national distraction of racial hypocrisy, if he wants to assure the success of his foreign policy and domestic agenda.
Next semester, we are teaching "From Slavery To Obama," a new, for-credit course at Stanford University Graduate School for a Master Degree in Liberal Arts. We respectfully recommend to the various media and Washington hypocrites who have been opining and criticizing Senator Harry Reid -- some calling for his resignation -- that they refresh themselves about some essential historical facts about race relations in America.
Professor Kenneth M. Stamp's classic work, The Peculiar Institution -- Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, James Gillespie Blaine's Twenty-Years in Congress, 1860-1880, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," and Dr. King's "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" are among the texts on the course's syllabus.
President Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, is well resourced to initiate the teachable moment proposed. We anxiously await a time when President and his advisors develop the confidence to amend their governance playbook. When confronted by an obvious national issue of race, they should not consider his election mandate as limiting or circumscribing, per se, Obama's ability to constructively engage the Senator Reid controversy as indeed "a teachable moment" about race relations in America in the 21st Century.
Precisely because President Obama is biracial and African-American, he has been vested providentially with the dual moral and political authority to address issues of race qualitatively differently than 43 previous occupants of his office. Yes, there are increased expectations when one receives a Nobel Peace Prize.
If not now, when? If not President Obama, who?