NOTE: A day after this post, Reid appeared on Meet the Press to deny the Sun-Times report that he believes - or told Gov. Blagojevich - that he believed top Illinois African American leaders were "unelectable." I'm glad Reid did this, and in the spirit of "innocent till proven guilty" and in light of what I originally noted was his stellar legislative record on race issues, I am inclined to believe him. That said, it doesn't negate the fundamental point of the original post, which is that in political circles, black candidates are often billed as politically inferior or "unelectable," - and that such latent racism is considered mundane. We need to get over that racism, and if this Reid controversy - whether rooted in fact or rooted in Blagojevich spin - helped forward the dialogue on that racism, then it's a good thing.
If you believe what the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting today*, then its fair to ask whether Harry Reid (D-NV) has some very disturbing - and very disturbingly outdated - views on race and politics:
Days before Gov. Blagojevich was charged with trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, top Senate Democrat Harry Reid made it clear who he didn't want in the post: Jesse Jackson, Jr., Danny Davis or Emil Jones.
Rather, Reid called Blagojevich to argue he appoint either state Veterans Affairs chief Tammy Duckworth or Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sources say the Senate majority leader pushed against Jackson and Davis -- both Democratic congressmen from Illinois -- and against Jones -- the Illinois Senate president who is the political godfather of President-elect Barack Obama -- because he did not believe the three men were electable.
Jackson, Davis and Jones are three top African American leaders in Illinois - they are each eminently qualified and have lots of experience winning elections. And yet according to the Sun-Times, Reid believes they are unelectable, while insisting that two non-black candidates are more electable. Sure, you can make individual arguments against each of those candidates - just like racially motivated employers can make individual arguments about why they fired this or that African American employee. But (if this story is correct) what gives away Reid's broader and more disturbing views on race as a whole - what tells us that this is less about individuals and more about an overarching view that black heritage is synonymous with inability to be elected - is his inclusion of Tammy Duckworth in the "electable" category.
This isn't to say that Madigan or Duckworth aren't "electable." In fact, the story really has nothing to do with them - it has to do with Reid pushing the idea that if you are a black person, you are a less politically attractive candidate to the Washington Democratic Establishment based on the discredited fallacy that if you are black and have won elections you are still less able to win elections than non-blacks who have never won elections.
Of course, winning elected office as an African American poses unique challenges. Racism remains alive and well in America - and especially in politics, where self-fulfilling ideologies (ie. if you are black you can't win) keep minority or female candidates down, and preserve the largely white male power structure inside the Beltway.
But as everyone from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick has shown, those challenges can be overcome. And what's so absurd about Reid's apparent view is that it is being expressed about an appointment to fill the seat of Obama - an African American who won statewide in Illinois - just after Obama won the presidency. It kinda makes you wonder if Reid would have told Illinois Democratic leaders back in 2004 not to back Obama for Senate because he was supposedly "unelectable."
Make no mistake about it - whether the Sun-Times story is accurate or not (and I sure hope it isn't), the undeniable fact is that the image of African Americans as inferior political candidates remains widespread in Washington's political circles even after the 2008 election, and such views are a more subtle form of racism than overt hatemongering.
Let's be real clear: Nothing in Reid's career suggests he dislikes African Americans or thinks they are inferior humans - but alleged moves like this (which are widespread throughout politics) suggests he believes African Americans are inherently inferior political candidates. That may be because he thinks America is a racist country, but his reasoning - however benevolent or not - matters far less than the expression of his belief - in this case, allegedly using his power to try to shove aside the major African American candidates because they are supposedly "unelectable." By allegedly lining up the Democratic Establishment against these candidates (and thus aligning money and infrastructure against them), he is indeed creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that actually makes these African Americans less electable.
The reason this Sun-Times story hasn't generated more news actually confirms the prevalence of these troubling views on race and politics. It's not newsy that a top Democratic official thinks the major black candidates are inferior to the major white candidates in a Senate race because that's how it's always been. Indeed, in many ways, the Democratic Establishment remains decidedly Old School in the worst sense of the term, too often seeing diversity - whether racial or gender - as a political liability rather than a strength. It may be the 21st century, but often the ugly ghosts of the 19th century still haunt the party.
*Let me add that I'm still hoping Reid issues a statement explaining how this story is wrong, or the Sun-Times retracts it.
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