Senator Reid recently got in political hot water because of what he said in 2008 about the US being “ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’”
Some folks are calling him a racist for these remarks. Others claim that he was simply making a statement about the political realities of America. Still others claim that he merely chose his words poorly.
Some folks on the right are claiming that the Democrats (who forgave Reid) are holding to a double standard. Republicans, such as Trent Lott, who have said unfortunate things have tended to reap the whirlwind for such remarks. In contrast, Joe Biden‘s infamous remark about Obama was quickly forgiven and now Joe is Vice President.
The folks who make this point are raising a matter well worth considering. After all, if making allegedly racist remarks is a career ending injury for Republicans, then the same standard should apply to Democrats-unless, of course, there is a relevant difference that justifies applying a different standard.
Some folks on the left might be inclined to claim that when a Democrat says something that seems racist (or sexist), then this is just an unfortunate slip rather than a revelation of the person’s true racist character. In contrast, when a Republican makes a racist remark, it expresses their true character of racism.
While this might appeal to some, if all we have to go on are the words, that what damns a Republican should equally damn a Democrat. However, my view has been that a person should not be condemned as a racist because of such a slip. After all, people say stupid things and make slips. While these can reveal true character, they can also be just stupid remarks that reveal the obvious: people are fallible and make mistakes. In order to establish that a person is racist requires more than such remarks-it requires more evidence. While there is not a set standard for what line must be crossed for a person to be a racist, the bar must be higher than a few remarks. If someone is really a racist, they will have an established pattern of racism that can be found in their words and deeds. If this is found, then the person can be condemned as a racist. If not, then their remarks can be attributed to a poor choice of words, a slip, or some other failing.
In the specific case of Reid, it is also important to consider the distinction between when a person is presenting his/her own view and when a person is simply stating how things are. For example, if I say that some white people are suspicious about young black men who wear their pants down low and speak in slang, I am not being racist. I am merely stating a fact.
Since I teach philosophy at a historically black university, I have heard many discussions over the years about the chances of a black person being elected President. In general, the view was (long before Obama was elected) that the first black President would be lighter skinned and have a manner that white people did not find threatening. These discussions were not racist-there was no unjustified judgment of people on racial grounds. Rather, the reality of the situation was presented in an objective manner. Likewise, Reid could be seen as simply stating a fact about America. Of course, he could also be expressing his alleged racism. If so, there should be additional evidence for this racism. If there is, then he can be condemned as a racist. If not, perhaps he should be regarded as merely being realistic.
Naturally, this same standard should be applied to everyone. Republicans should get the same treatment as Democrats when it comes to the same sort of remarks.