The racial “third rail”

Poor Harry Reid! Now he knows how Trent Lott felt.

And George Allen.

And Don Imus.

And Earl Butz.

And a bunch of other white politicians or celebrities who were incautious enough to say something that the mainstream media and the American Left could gin up to be portrayed as, at best, “racially insensitive,” or at worst, “white racism.”

Sen. Reid, the Senate majority leader, is quoted in a new tittle-tattle book about the 2008 campaign, “Game Change”, as having said (in a private conversation, yet) that Barack Obama could be an effective Democratic presidential candidate because he was “a light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect except when he wants to have it.”

Howls of outrage have come from Republicans far and wide over his comments, and demands for his resignation as majority leader. His fellow Democrats, obviously embarrassed by his too-too frank speaking of embarrassing truths, have nevertheless circled the wagons as Democrats tend to do around one of their own who has dropped a turd into the political punchbowl (on the other hand, Republicans throw their offenders overboard).  Besides, the Democrats say, he apologized profusely to President Obama, who condescended to forgive him because Reid’s heart is presumably in the Left place.

Of course, Reid spoke the truth — unwisely and in front of the wrong unnamed source. Barack Obama IS a light-skinned African American, because his late mother was white. In interviews he tends to speak what might be called Standard American. But put him on the stump, especially in front of a predominantly young or black audience, and the accents and cadences of a South Side Chicago preacher come unmistakably to the fore. He didn’t learn that in Hawaii or Indonesia, his childhood homes. He consciously acquired it after moving to Chicago as an adult — “street cred,” you know.

Reid is only the latest in a long line of mis-speakers. Trent Lott declared at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that the country would have been better off if it had elected Thurmond president as a Dixiecrat, instead of Harry Truman, in 1948. Of course at a patriarch’s centennial celebration, the proper thing to do would have been to denounce the birthday boy as an unreconstructed white racist, I suppose. Lott, who was Senate majority leader at the time, was turfed out unceremoniously by his fellow Republicans.

George Allen lost his Senate race a few years back after he was videotaped using the word “Macaca” to refer to a darker-skinned reporter — presumably some kind of vicious racial slur, although it sounds more like a tropical bird to me.

And to go w-a-a-ay back (to the days of Old Corporal’s youth) secretary of agriculture Earl Butz got the yo-heave-ho from President Gerald Ford after he told a joke (in a private conversation which was revealed later in a magazine article) referring to blacks’ alleged sexual, footwear and bathroom preferences.

Well, I’m going to have to go with my fellow Democrats on this one. Harry Reid wasn’t speaking in a public forum. He was talking in private and saying things that politicians say. Would any of us like everything we’ve ever said publicized in a tell-all book, or on cable news? I don’t think so. Why isn’t anyone criticizing the two reporters who wrote this book for possibly violating “private confidences” in Reid’s case and several others that have already been mentioned as they race from talk show to talk show, publicizing the book?

But Reid and other white politicians need to remember this: Truth is no defense when you’re speaking of African Americans. Anything like criticism or disrespect for them, voiced publicly, is the “third rail” of American politics: Touch it, and you die.

So Harry Reid shouldn’t step down. But he should wise up.

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