What do we talk about when we talk about race? Or, more pointedly, what do we talk about when we talk about the foolish things that people sometimes say? Reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have garnered much attention for their new book on the 2008 presidential campaign, Game Change , largely for quoting Harry Reid’s ill-considered remarks about then-Senator Barack Obama. An Obama supporter, Reid viewed the candidate’s light skin as an asset and his ability to speak “with no Negro dialect” as an even greater one.
Critics have called Reid’s comment racist, and it is. It is racist in the same way that Joe Biden’s campaign gaffe was racist, complimenting Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” Both remarks betray a limited sense of African Americans as a community or as individuals. A sense constrained by low expectations and an inane failure to consider that black folks might occupy a spectrum of accomplishment and ability as broad and varied as that of any other peoples. Articulate? One would hope that the former editor of the Harvard Law Review could string together a lucid sentence. Negro dialect? I had not realized there was one; did we expect the presidential candidate to don a straw hat and tell us a story about Brer Rabbit and the briar patch? Statements that paint Obama as an Exceptional Negro say more about the ignorance of the speakers than they do about Obama himself.
Yet all expressions of racism are not equivalent. Republicans have made hay of Reid’s remark and the Democrats’ responses to it. If Trent Lott had to resign as Senate Majority Leader because of his unseemly remarks about black people, they argue, so too should Reid. However, where Reid and Biden revealed the extent to which they had absorbed white supremacy in the form of images, assumptions, and expectations, Lott expressed regret for the passing of white supremacy as a political and economic program. In celebrating Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott commented that Mississippi had voted for the Thurmond in 1948, the year he broke off from the Democrats and ran for president as a Dixiecrat in order to protect Jim Crow. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead,” Lott added, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” No federal civil rights legislation, presumably, and no enforcement of the decisions of the Warren court if ever it had come to that.
To marvel ignorantly at a black man’s accomplishment is one thing; to lament all the “problems” that accompany finally fulfilling the constitutional promise of black citizenship quite another. That some might equate them – and that others might credit the comparison – speaks to our failure as political and social historians to convey to people the difference between racism as affect and white supremacy as a form of social control. “I don’t care how others feel about me,” I often tell my students, “I care what access they try to deny me.” Sometimes students understand what I mean, but often they do not. For them, the African American freedom struggle was all about winning the hearts and minds of white Americans; few learned in school that African Americans set out to overthrow a political order.
Trent Lott was right: for white supremacists, the African American freedom struggle did stir up a good many problems over a goodly number of years. It was never so inevitable, so peaceable, nor so complete as the most reassuring narratives of the civil rights movement would have us believe. Historians from John Dittmer to Hasan Jeffries have underscored the profound violence that engulfed even the classic phase of the civil rights movement – violence spawned by white domestic terrorists defending on the ground what Dixiecrats tried to uphold at the polls. Moreover, recent work by Katherine Charron and Francoise Hamlin reminds us how long before and how long after the classic phase of the movement the freedom struggle spans. The movement was but one phase of an ongoing attempt to set the boundaries of state and nation in America. It is the story of American democracy. In teaching it, we need to focus less on redemption and more on emancipation.
In order to accomplish the rhetorical trick of making Lott’s statement on par with Reid’s, those rhetoricians must paint the freedom struggle as something that is long past, a story all finished. Only then, when black people and their demands for justice rest safely and solely in the past, can ignorance about African Americans seem as dangerous as hostility to African Americans.
Only then, when one assumes that racial violence and racial discrimination do not exist in a magical post-racial America, can expressed feeling seem the equivalent of past action. Equating the two requires an insistence that histories remain consigned to the past where their specifics, details, and textures are forgotten. It is our job, not only to bring that history forward, but to help people see how they live in it and speak through it each and every day.
Adriane Lentz-Smith is the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. Her most recent book is Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (Harvard University Press, 2009).
Republished with permission from the History News Network.