Not All Racial Comments Are Created Equal

Please God, save us from hyper-partisanship and hyper-media in perpetual election mode selling us a hyperbolic public discourse. Not everything is a crisis setting off alarm bells in a red hot explosive firestorm that may cost someone the next election. Not every disagreement about public policy is an intractable impasse, or at least not everything ought to be.

The latest hyper-partisan, hyper-media hyperbole deals with comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid regarding candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 election. In essence, Reid is reported to have said that Obama would be a good candidate for president because he was light-skinned and did not speak with a "Negro" dialect. Republicans are calling for Reid's resignation as majority leader, comparing this situation to that of Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi when, in 2002, Lott praised Senator Strom Thurmond on the occasion of Thurmond's 100 birthday. Lott said that the country would have been better had Thurmond won his 1948 presidential bid. Thurmond ran as a segregationist who wanted to maintain apartheid in the United States.

Not all racial comments are created equal. It is unadulterated nonsense to say that the comments by the two senators are the same. Condemning one without condemning the other is not a double standard. Trent Lott expressed a desire to keep African-Americans as second class citizens in the United States. Harry Reid expressed confidence that an African-American could be elected to the highest office in the land. Harry Reid told the truth. It is very likely that for many European-Americans, Barack Obama was an acceptable candidate because of his skin color and because he is both eloquent and articulate.

However, what has gone unsaid in the analysis of this situation is that Barack Obama's mixed race heritage gave him an advantage that other African-American candidates for president did not have. It gave him an intimate understanding of European-Americans. Born of a European-American mother and raised by European-American grandparents, he knew that white skin was not immunity against life's hardships and disappointments. He saw his grandmother's hard work and determination to rise to advance on her job. He saw up close his grandfather's strengths and failings. When he was on the campaign trail, he no doubt recognized his grandparents in the hundreds of thousands of older white people he met. He may not have gotten their vote, but he knew their lives because he had grown up with it.

Barack Obama could see European-Americans through a lens that was not tinted with the horror stories of growing up African-American in the United States. And most African-American families have their own stories of racist injustice. Some are tragic. Some are heroic. A shadow of distrust remains. He knows such stories through his wife's family, but he did not grow up with them. Without this heritage, he can say with absolute conviction that the United States is the only country on earth where his story is possible. He can talk of there being not a red America or a blue America but a UNITED STATES of America because the red and the blue, the white and the black, the European and the African are united inside of his very self.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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