Dispatch January 2010

The Decline of the Racist Insult

The Harry Reid scandal is entirely the creation of journalism. Reid will survive, but the press has a lot to answer for.

When Republican party chairman Michael Steele demanded the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over some unfortunate remarks Reid made about Barack Obama, he neglected to even pretend to be offended. Reid told the authors of Game Change, a book about the 2008 political campaign, that Obama was “light-skinned” and “had no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.” Steele is the Republican chairman and a good example of the maxim that there is no such thing as an un-famous black conservative. You’ve heard of every single one of them. This is partly because the Republican party and the conservative media put every black conservative on display like a trophy (“Y’see? We’ve got some too.”), and partly because the media of all political slants and none at all have a need for symmetry. African Americans may have voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and other Democrats, but if you’re a Sunday talk show producer putting together a panel, and you’ve got a black liberal, you need a black conservative for balance.

As many have pointed out, Reid’s comment was a “gaffe”—a statement that gets you in trouble because it’s true. The sense that Obama was a different kind of black politician—not part of the southern civil rights movement or the great migration north—may have made some African Americans suspicious (though I would like to meet a single black American who voted against him for this reason), but undoubtedly helped him among whites.

But even the black chairman of the Republican party could not bring himself to claim that he was offended by Reid’s remarks. Or maybe it didn’t even occur to him that he needed to claim offense in order for his call for Reid’s head to make any sense. Steele demanded Reid’s resignation on the grounds that Democrats had demanded the resignation of Republican Trent Lott back in 2002, when Lott celebrated the 150th birthday of Senator Strom Thurmond by saying that America would have been a lot better off if the South had won the Civil War. (Actually, Lott said that if America had voted for the southern segregationist Dixiecrats back in 1948, when Thurmond was their standard bearer, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems for all these years.” And it was only Thurmond’s 100th birthday.)

Indeed I read or heard of no one who was actually offended by Reid’s remarks. The disagreement about whether to take them seriously and force Reid to resign  broke down entirely on party grounds, as opposed to racial ones. Every Republican pol from their chairman on down said he should resign, and every Democratic pol from Obama on down said he should stay. Even Al Sharpton, who will fly to the site of a racial misstatement like the FAA rushing to the scene of an air crash, decided to take a pass on this one. The Republican argument boiled down to sauce for the goose. Rules are rules, and the rule is, you commit a racial gaffe, you resign.  The accusation was of a double standard. Democrats replied: this is different, because of intent and context. Trent Lott was saying America would be better off if it was still segregated by race. Reid’s remark, by contrast, was intended to praise Obama and clearly came in the context of wishing him well and hoping for his success.

What Lott’s remarks and Reid’s have in common is that both slipped out accidentally. Both men would take them back in a heartbeat if they could. And why can’t they? It’s one of the perversities of gaffe politics that you are held to anything you say, even if you know it’s a mistake as it comes out of your mouth, and even if your regret at having said it is patently sincere. The public, or at least the media, suspects that you only regret the gaffe because of the furor it has caused: that your slip of the tongue revealed your true nature or beliefs. But nothing in Reid’s past or in his remark itself gives any reason to suspect he’s a racist. The same cannot be said of Trent Lott.

Presented by

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for The Atlantic. He is also the editor of a new Web site to be launched early this year by The Atlantic's parent company. Follow him on Twitter. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In