How the Media Did a Good Job on Reid's Race Gaffe

Even though it's well within my beat, I usually live in fear of America's next teachable moment about race. I'm serious; it keeps me up at night. When I do sleep, I'm tortured by anxiety dreams where a shadowy figure is yelling racial epithets at me while I'm screaming "I am Somebody!" and throwing copies of Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." (OK, not really, but I do worry.) So I was pleasantly surprised to get through almost a week of coverage on the Harry Reid "Negro dialect" scandal without a single heart palpitation. I'll take a step back in case you've been spending the last few days in spiritual seclusion. In their new book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reveal that part of Reid's support of Barack Obama's candidacy sprang from the fact that he was "a 'light-skinned' African-American 'with no Negro dialect', unless he wanted to have one." Reid has since apologized to Obama, and the president has accepted that apology. At this point in past scandals (Imus, Trent Lott, Glenn Beck, O'Reilly), I was usually breathing fire over the media's seemingly concerted effort to misrepresent the situation and/or its failure to place the incident into any kind of meaningful historical context. But hey, like I said, this time around I was blessedly unoffended. So since I'm usually the first to attack the press for their flaws, I thought this time, I'd dole out a little praise—and admit one failing of my own.

Thank you for not taking the bait and allowing the Republicans' comparison of Harry Reid to Trent Lott to stick in the minds of the American people. When the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, said that Reid should resign as Trent Lott had been forced to after Dixiegate, many in the press moved immediately to dismiss the comparison for the absurd bit of politics that it was. Our own Ben Adler did it on The Gaggle, as did Michael Tomasky at The Guardian UK and Joan Walsh at Salon. I mean really, since when is supporting a black man's run for president in the same universe as a white man lamenting the failure of segregation?

Thank you for not creating a drum roll for Reid's resignation. Of course, it's hard to ask a man to resign when he's behind in his bid for reelection but still, it shows admirable self-restraint. I've always felt that demanding that the minimum punishment for an offensive racial remark be job termination is the fastest way to harden people's hearts against diversity and equal opportunity. Especially when the remark contained the word Negro (and not the other N word).

Thank you for distinguishing between the meaning of his words and his poor word choice. Color me pleasantly surprised that many members of the media took a moment to consider whether Reid was right and to explore the issues. As Ruth Marcus put it over at The Washington Post: "But, to a degree, Reid's assessment of the salience of Obama's skin tone was on target. Not only do we not live in a colorblind society, we live in an exquisitely color-sensitive one. A 2007 study that used magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain reactions to photos of light- and dark-skinned subjects, found more activity within the amygdala, which reflects arousal to perceived threats, when dark-skinned faces were shown. 'Disconcertingly, to the extent that Afrocentric features increase the likelihood of making stereotypic inferences, this may result in severe consequences for those possessing high levels of Afrocentric features,' the authors write." Any time our teachable moments include a bit of science on race relations, I think the world is a better place.

And now, let me eat a little crow before I deliver the bad news. Based on my watching of the Sunday-morning news shows, I wrongly assumed that the 24-hour news stations were going to spend the next couple of days taking the Republicans' partisan jabs at Reid seriously. So before I read and watched more widely, I said on NPR that the media never gets these things right and avoids the real topics, not thinking, that here I was, a card-carrying member of the media on NPR, talking about exactly what I thought we should talk about … bias based on skin color. It was a knee-jerk reaction and an unfair attack.

OK, so on to the bad news:

No thank you for the continued overreliance on white commentators to discuss potential racism. I feel like a broken record, but if you put a few people of color on your speed dial, you can present an even better analysis of the news. One of the viewpoints I found to be consistently missing was that although Reid was supporting Obama, he was also pretty condescending. Archaic word choice aside, it is a bit galling to have your skin color weighed as a potential pro or con in measures greater than your experience, politics, and ability. Note: I didn't say it wasn't true, just that it's annoying and patronizing.

It's exhausting to plumb social interactions for racial undertones, to constantly be on the lookout for newly emerging code words, and to constantly wonder how much people are thinking about the color of my skin rather than the content of my character. I'd feel sorry for myself if I didn't like this column so much. So thank you most of all for not giving me agita this week.