Barack Obama says uproar over Harry Reid’s ‘Negro dialect’ comment makes ‘absolutely no sense’

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama said Monday the uproar over Harry Reid’s racial comments made “absolutely no sense.” He meant to chide the chattering class back into a more policy-focused frame of mind.

But the reason nothing made sense, a number of black public figures and commentators retorted, is because Washington was having a non-conversation. Some blamed the president himself for that.

“We can’t have an open, honest, real discussion about race in this country. I think this is, quite frankly, one of the failures of our new president … He’s loath to talk about race,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a nationally known African-American author and sociology professor at Georgetown University, on CNN.

Dyson added on MSNBC that Obama “runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.”

Marc Lamont Hill, another black commentator who frequently appears on television, accused Obama of “ducking and dodging race,” on CNN.

Obama’s frustration with the situation was evident during an interview with Roland Martin for TV One, a six-year-old cable network aimed primarily at African-American viewers.

“He’s apologized, recognizing that he didn’t use appropriate language. But there was nothing mean-spirited in what he had to say,” Obama said of Reid.

“The fact that we spend days on this instead of talking about the unemployment rate or talking about how we deal with critical issues like energy and health care is an indication of why I think people don’t understand what’s happening in Washington.”

But with health-care negotiations going on behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and Obama himself conducting no public events, Reid’s 2008 remark that Obama could win the election because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect” continued to dominate the TV and radio airwaves.

The political angle looked to be contained, with Democratic support for Reid’s role as majority leader continuing, though Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin late Monday became the first member of the caucus to question whether Reid should step down.

Reid’s first public appearance since the comment was first reported in a new book about the 2008 election, “Game Change,” added fuel to the fire.

“I’m not going to dwell on this anymore,” Reid said at an event in Nevada intended to focus on energy policy.

Republicans, however, wanted nothing more than to linger over Reid’s words. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out press releases to 12 states with key senate elections this fall, seeking to keep the issue alive by putting pressure on Democratic candidates to denounce Reid’s remarks.

The NRSC demanded to know “exactly what [Reid] meant” by his comments. Pressed to explain what she thought he might mean, NRSC spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson Marchand said she didn’t “want to get into trying to understand what he meant by those comments, because I find them offensive.”

Veteran GOP strategist Kevin Madden stated more bluntly why it was advantageous for Republicans to stay on top of the race issue.

“A Washington tempest now has a localized angle. Senate candidates across the country can get put in the difficult position of having to defend embarrassing comments made by the Senate’s top Democrat. Harry Reid’s problems are now their problem, too,” he said.

Juan Williams, a veteran African-American journalist and TV commentator, said that besides seeking political advantage, Republicans were incensed that Reid was not being censured in the same way that Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was in 2002 for racially tinged comments when he was majority leader. Lott was forced to step down from leadership after saying the country would not have had “all these problems” if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.

Williams said the meaning of Reid’s comments was “obvious.”

“He’s saying he thinks the guy can win despite the obvious question about whether a black man could be elected in a white majority country,” Williams said. “In terms of appearance and his ability to speak he’s someone that everybody can respect and admire and can vote for.”

The number of public figures expressing much the same thing – that Reid spoke the truth if while using “inartful language,” as Obama called it – grew Monday.

Conservative columnist George Will was the first to publicly say Reid had done nothing wrong: “Did he say anything false? … I don’t think there’s a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said,” Will said Sunday on ABC.

Liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wrote the same thing Monday morning.

“I’m trying really hard to understand why Harry Reid’s comments … were offensive,” Klein wrote. “Do people seriously dispute that light-skinned African Americans have traditionally been more palatable to white Americans? We literally have studies on this subject.”

Reid was even asked about this during his brief question and answer session with reporters following the energy event.

“Some have suggested that your comments that you haven’t apologized for were uncomfortable but true. How do you feel about that?” Reid was asked.

The senator, who already faced a very tough reelection fight in Nevada before these comments came to light, came nowhere near touching the question.

“I have been — I really appreciate people writing nice things about me. There’s a wonderful editorial in The L.A. Times today and a number of things on the Huffington Post, nice things there,” he said.

Williams said the main reason Reid, Obama and Republicans were not talking about the actual meaning of what was said was simple: “What we’ve got here is a highly politicized situation.”

“If we had an honest discussion about this, we’d say, race does matter in American life. The way you speak does matter. But Harry Reid, a 70-year-old man, really had no business having a conversation about negro dialects and skin tone. It put him in a vulnerable position and he’s being punished for it.”