03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Harry Reid a Racist?

It will come as news to rock-dwellers that Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader and Democrat, has come under intense criticism in recent days for some words he uttered back during the Democratic primary regarding now President Barack Obama. As reported in the recently published book Game Change, in the course of expressing his support for Obama, Reid opined that Obama was palatable to the American electorate because he was light skinned and spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

So the hot question is: does this mean Harry Reid is a racist? And if so, aren't Democrats both awful people and hypocrites for allowing him to be a top member of their party? After all, Trent Lott was forced out of his leadership position when he eulogized former segregationist Presidential candidate Strom Thurmond by expressing regret that the dead man was not successful in his 1948 presidential ambitions and by extension in preventing the darkies from running amok.

Racist beliefs are to Americans as impure thoughts are to Baptists. Everyone denies having them, everyone does have them, and everyone has a part in a morality drama over the tension between their thoughts and their guilt over their thoughts. Some folks are professional rooters out of racism, we are constantly discovering new sinners in our midst and are just shocked and appalled.

And to shift the analogy slightly, some of the biggest preachers on race sometimes turn out to be Ted Haggards.

Racism tends to be described in a binary fashion, either you are or you aren't. But the truth is that when it comes to a complicated subject like race, there is a spectrum encompassing many possibilities. To make it more confusing, race is a historically evolving proposition.

Where does racism come from? A friend recently exclaimed "It all starts with the classifications!" And yes, racism finds its origins in grouping together people based on certain observable features like skin color or facial features. One could make an argument that once you start classifying people based on any criteria, an inevitable "us versus them" mentality will develop and eventually ossify into racial prejudice.

You don't even need observable differences! Take Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. They are the same folk! Bankers and lawyers. East side, West side. You get the idea. The essence of the differences that are observed is that they are real but imbued with a far greater significance than they deserve.

After you've classified people who are different from you, you start noticing things that you don't like about some of them. These things are often true about the individuals that you observe.

The racist mistake or gambit, depending on underlying motivations, is to falsely attribute the things that you don't like about some of the different people to all of the different people. If you have a bad experience with one white person, then all white people are evil. Heck, they enslaved people! To take a traditional trope, because a lot of black people have been convicted of crimes, all black people are criminals. Even the Harvard educated ones who make you feel insecure.

The next step in racism is to express or act upon one's beliefs. The stereotypical racist act is to commit an act of violence or to use one's power in hiring, firing, or in law enforcement to discriminate against members of the hated group. Without the ability to act on one's racist views, racism is just mean words--unpleasant but basically meaningless.*

Gary Gerstle, in his excellent book American Crucible, describes how seriously people of the early 20th century took such now antiquated concepts as the "Teutonic race" or the "Anglo-Saxon" race. Believe it or not, at the time there was as much hysteria over the invasion of the Irish, then regarded as dirty and loutish (especially in the second half of the 19th century) as there is today of Mexicans, who are similarly represented as filthy and loud.

Today, it seems purely comical to divide people into racial groups based on European ancestry. But it made perfect sense to our recent ancestors. The Nazis even killed people on the basis not only of being Jewish but of being Slavic as opposed to "Aryan." And Hitler, in his insanity, thought that Britons were Aryans like Germans, but the French were inferior by virtue of being Gauls.

Although strange and amusing, this must give us hope for the future.

Racism has been described as radioactive, meaning it is poisonous. We can also consider it to be radioactive in terms of one's historical proximity to the American racial ground zero of believing that Africans were soulless beasts of burden who could be bought and sold. At that historical ground zero, one could be at the outer band of progressive thought on race--i.e., an abolitionist and a believer in civil rights for Africans--and yet be aghast at such ideas as social equality between the races, which today we view as being a clear marker of absolute retrograde racism. As the radioactive isotopes of that initial American sin have decayed, society has slowly moved towards equality and in the process once progressive views have become archaic and troublesome.

When you look at racism in the historical context, it becomes clear that we have evolved considerably in our views. Trent Lott would likely be considered the most progressive person alive on the topic of race in the Confederate South. Abraham Lincoln likely held views that would be extraordinarily racist by the standards of modern America, but he was arguably the most racially progressive figure in American history by virtue of destroying legal slavery.

To be sure, a 20 year old expressing the sentiments of a Harry Reid would be bizarre and the use of the word "Negro" would be a tell for racism. But Reid's mode of expression is entirely consistent with a mainstream progressive of his generation, for whom "Negro," which is now a harsh sounding racial term, was simply white society's polite way of referring to people otherwise commonly referred to as "niggers." Michael Kinsley gives an example of just how socially acceptable such blatant expressions of racism once were.

Harry Reid and Trent Lott both are products of an extremely racist society. Once we accept that growing up in the racist, segregated society of the 1940s inevitably led to now antiquated beliefs about race, we can distinguish the men's subsequent behavior on the basis of how they dealt with that heritage.

As The Nation's John Nichols reported at the time of Lott's political death, Lott's comment was not simply an overly generous eulogy. In fact, he had expressed similar sentiments on many occasions and had a record of working to oppose civil rights, even going so far as to say that "racial discrimination does not always violate public policy." By way of contrast, Harry Reid can point to a record of supporting civil rights in Nevada and in the United States Senate. That's why President Barack Obama observed of Reid that he "is a good man who has always been on the right side of history."

Having considered all of this, let's evaluate Harry Reid's comments once again. Did Reid express views that were far outside the mainstream for a man of his generation? No. Does his record support a finding of active, virulent racism? No. Did he take action against Obama on the basis of his race? Quite the opposite.

So, Reid may well be mildly racist, at one of the outer bands of people of his generation. Which is to say, he came of age in a society that was profoundly racist, within a subculture that remained more racist than other subcultures--Mormonism--yet has been a progressive champion of civil rights and a powerful behind the scenes supporter of Barack Obama's successful candidacy for President.

Harry Reid's comments are a reminder of the racist society that he came from, the heritage that he doubtless struggles with every day, and how far we have yet to go. But they are a sight different from hearing Trent Lott's expressions of nostalgia for the era of segregation.

So, let's not bemoan Harry Reid's impure thoughts. Instead, let's acknowledge the lingering burden of racism in both the formerly oppressed and the former oppressors, and strive for a more perfect union.

Bart Motes welcomes comments, questions, and criticisms at

* Some scholars argue that talking about racism is pointless. What we should talk about is "white supremacy." White supremacy refers to the agenda that American whites have had to historically greater and lesser degrees to oppress non-white Americans for fun and profit. The apex of white supremacy was slavery, of course, and its nadir the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.

This approach has some merit. For instance, it makes sense of the debate over whether Barack Obama's election signaled the end of racism in America. (Obviously not.) If it instead becomes a question of whether it marked the end of white supremacy, the answer is clearly "yes, but with caveats."

It also helps us navigate the shoals of affirmative action, "reverse racism," and so on. Taken at its most extreme, there is a brand of conservatism that has as its argument that the only racism left in America is government sponsored racism in the form of affirmative action. Similarly, they argue that the only discrimination left in America is against white Christians.

The effect of race based preference programs is, of course, racial in nature. But it is difficult to see how programs designed and implemented by whites in order to shave off a tiny portion of a pie to give to other groups is advancing a program of say, black supremacy. At worst, it could be argued that affirmative action and set-asides are bad because they put a happy face over problems caused by structural racism. But that is a topic for another day.