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Monday, January 11, 2010

Harry Reid and the Third Rail of Race

Having just returned from a lovely time in New Orleans, I was reflecting on Harry Reid's latest gaffe and an adventure I had when I was a resident of the Crescent City.

First, it is interesting to me how thoroughly Reid is being slammed for his comments. It was the lead story on all the Sunday morning news shows.  Time magazine did an article entitled, "Is Obama Black Enough?"  Was Reid's sin then fleshing this out with a tad too much particularity, or using a term that has fallen out of use?  Was he too comfortable in talking about something that makes most of us quite uncomfortable?  (Surely whatever his comfort level in talking about race, the topic will now make the Leader uncomfortable the rest of his time in public life...)  Along with the chorus of condemnations, there were observations of double standards from the Trent Lott gaffe. 

I want to suggest that there's a very different double standard at play.  We seem to want our politicians to avoid talking about race entirely, leaving very insightful commentaries on race to comedians.  I think Chris Rock has had some fairly profound things to say about race relations that politicians couldn't touch with a ten-foot pole and maybe rightfully so.  But to speak on a subject is to risk saying something wrong and when the penalty for coming down on the wrong side of the sensitivity line is as severe as it has been for Reid in the last 24 hours, politicians will just avoid talking through important issues about the subject.

Meanwhile, the rest of world is talking about race and at times in ways that should sometimes cause outrage.  Being in New Orleans when the Reid issue broke reminded me of a Mardi Gras Ball I attended when I was a teaching fellow at Tulane about a decade ago.  I was invited by my then-girlfriend and I was delighted to be a part of the Mardi Gras culture.  There's a skit performed at each of these balls before the queen is presented -- they call it a tableau.  This presentation harkened back to the 1880s Louisiana, not 21st century New Orleans. 

The theme of the ball was "A Midsummer Night's Dream" but I never figured out how that tied into anything.  As the skit opened, upper class whites in clothing from the nineteenth century were walking the streets of New Orleans.  Street signs were clear and really well done to look like actual signs.  Then, from stage left,  a slovenly dressed group, all with painted black-faces and Afro wigs entered, one carrying a large boom box playing music that the entering group danced to.  They went about the town changing street signs -- I don't recall all the changes, but St. Charles Avenue was changed to Ray Charles Avenue.  (In addition to being bothered by the obvious things I have described, and am about to describe, I was terribly troubled that someone would find it a bad thing, under any circumstances, to have a Ray Charles Avenue -- there OUGHT to be a Ray Charles Avenue...)

So after a few minutes of this dancing, dixie was blown on a bugle off stage.  Men in confederate uniforms entered from stage left and surrounded the dancers with black paint on their faces and took them to a mound in the middle of the stage with a sign that designated it as "Monkey Hill".  (This in NO way is meant to mitigate how horrible this was, but by way of context, Monkey Hill is the highest elevation in New Orleans -- and it is at the New Orleans Zoo.)  So the tableau ended with the confederate army surrounding the actors in fake black face and Afro wigs. 

The reaction was mixed.  As the partial standing ovation began, I was nearly escorted out when I said audibly enough to be heard by about half the audience, "What the hell was that?"  I then left on my own accord.

As I began to recount this story to people who knew New Orleans culture much better than I did, I was told that this was nothing to be surprised at.  In fact,this Saturday night I was telling this story to a native New Orleanian who, though she surely didn't approve, was not shocked at all.  A decade ago, the only coverage in the New Orleans Times Picayune detailed the Queen's Court and it noted that the ball had the Midsummer's Night's Dream theme and said that the tableau "had a Puckish character."  One of the regrets in my life is that I didn't write a letter to editor or try to get some press coverage on this thing I perceived at the time to be an outrage -- and still perceive it to have been.  I felt dirty for having been in that room.  And rather than describe it as the moral outrage I thought I had witnessed, the event was celebrated by the newspaper's social reporter as a great success.

What I witnessed at that ball was certainly an extreme case and, despite the lack of shock by New Orleanians when I tell the tale, I've heard of nothing else quite like it.  My only point in telling this story is that there are truly offensive things that are directed toward racial minorities -- and, in the my example, even with a newspaper reporter covering the event, they go unmentioned. 

But with politicians, it seems that nearly any discussion about race will be regarded as not just a gaffe, or an unfortunate choice of words, but as a potentially career-ending ten-second interlude.  With virtually every other topic, people can just be wrong, ill-informed, or insensitive.  It didn't end Howard Dean's presidential ambitions when he said on Tim Russert's show that we should have more troops in Afghanistan but when asked how many we then had there, he estimated 200-300,000 but said he really didn't know. Harry Reid's error of insensitivity seems to have a much longer shelf life. 

Maybe if we were willing to let politicians be wrong about racial comments, then they would talk about race more, become more comfortable with the topic, and be able to communicate in ways that didn't offend.  Some things still have to be out-of-bounds, no question about it.  I'll never forget my only Mardi Gras ball, but not for any reason that I want to remember.  But it strikes me that there's a zone of discussion about race that might be ill-stated, contain anachronistic assumptions, or simply be wrong -- that ought to be criticized but not career-ending.  But I don't think race relations are advanced if any mention of race becomes the third rail of politics. 

Posted by Wes Oliver on January 11, 2010 at 12:47 AM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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The reason that society is incapable of addressing the racial issue is because we view it from the wrong perspective. We talk all around the fundamental, underlying reasons for racism, and make it an emotional issue. How does one expect to cure the cancer without focusing on the cancerous cells? Focusing on the symptoms is an ineffective mechanism to employ. Consider this: http://www.tinyurl.com/aq4cdb

Posted by: Reggie Greene / The Logistician | Jan 11, 2010 11:34:37 AM

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