In the brouhaha about Harry Reid’s comments last year about then candidate Obama’s skin color and lack of a “negro” dialect” many Republicans compared his remarks to those made by then Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party in 2002 and accused Democrats of a double standard. Lott was quoted as saying “”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 the years, either.” But there is a big difference between these two remarks that Republicans refuse to or are unable to understand.
While Reid’s comments were probably ill advised, they were the truth. It is more difficult for a dark skinned African American to be elected to public office. One study conducted during the 2008 during the campaign showed voters three pictures of Obama, one where his skin was lighter, one where his skin was darker and one with his natural skin color. Voters were asked to pick which photo was the correct representation of Obama. Supporters of Obama picked the photo with the lighter skin color while opponents of Obama picked the darker photo. Americans, like it or not, are uncomfortable with race and our world views tend to dictate how we see people of color, especially those running for public office.
Senator Lott’s comments, however, were quite different. Lott seemed to give voice to the idea held by many Southern Republicans that the country would be better off had the segregationist Thurmond been elected and the civil rights advances of the last 50 years had not occurred. That the Republicans cannot see the difference in these two comments, or refuse to confront the fact that a majority of their constituency, especially in the South, are racist will do little to keep their party from continuing to become a regional party. One need only look at the tea party rallies with their racist Obama cartoons, or the cries of “kill him” and “terrorist” shouted at Palin rallies during the campaign last year, or the indefensible “birther” movement that asserts that Obama, as the ultimate “other” cannot be an American citizen and is inherently foreign.
I grew up in a small town in East Texas, a town that was and continues to be segregated. The African Americans live in “The Acre”, the white people live everywhere else. In my high school graduating class there were only 2 African Americans out of 83. Although my parents taught us to treat everyone equally, only after moving to Austin and working with African Americans did I realize I was to a certain degree racist. I had never been exposed to African Americans on a regular basis but once I was I was ashamed of the way I had thought for so many years, that somehow African Americans were beneath me. It’s something I still feel guilty about. But I don’t think I do myself or anyone else any good by ignoring the fact that there continues to be a large, vocal portion of the American population that judge people by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. Harry Reid recognized this. Trent Lott seemed to think it was okay.
There is a big difference in the two.