Publicly apologizing for conduct that wasn’t wrong creates a cultural misconception that such conduct is wrong. This confuses and misleads everyone. It would be nice, not to mention responsible and courageous, for public figures who find themselves being attacked by public opinion mobs for “offending” the wrong person or group, to demand some precision regarding their so-called offense before begging for forgiveness.
This is obviously too much to expect from politicians, perhaps because they seem to have such a difficult time figuring out the difference between right and wrong in the best of circumstances. Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson apologized, but made it clear that he was proud of what he did, making his apology a formality rather than a genuine expression of regret. Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has quickly apologized for private comments he made about Barack Obama, reported in a new campaign ’08 backroom gossip book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Because the reporting of Reid’s comments has resulted in his being accused of racism, and because Reid himself has been quick to accuse others of racism when it suited his purposes, the apology was inevitable. It also has written another incomprehensible definition into Washington’s “Things Politicians Can’t Say” Code.
The book, Game Change, reports that Reid told colleagues that Obama had a real shot at becoming the first black president because he was a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” What was wrong with this comment? Reid was not criticizing Obama. He was making a political veteran’s assessment of the racial attitudes of many American voters, and Obama’s likelihood of overcoming some of the negative ones sufficiently to be elected. His assessment was not only accurate; it undoubtedly was one that political analysts in both parties and thousands of newsrooms shared in countless discussions. I heard, and you probably did too, African-Americans comment on how accomplished Obama was at “talking White.” Does Obama slide into a different dialect and accent when he’s speaking to African-American groups? We know he does. The video record is clear that he does, and there is nothing wrong with that. If there is nothing wrong with it, there can be nothing wrong about commenting on it.
Reid’s apology focused on his “poor choice of words.” His comments were private: if the people he was talking to understood exactly what he meant, then his choice of words was not “poor.” The purpose of private discussions is communication. Reid’s “choice of words” might have been poor for a public statement, but the statement only became public because it was published without Reid’s permission. Halperin and Heilemann should apologize to Harry Reid.
Is Reid’s use, in a private conversation, of “Negro” the real offense here? Really? When Harry Reid was growing up, there was no common, acceptable, polite term for an African-Americans other than Negro. The Black Renaissance in the 1950’s began the movement away from the word as a symbol of black oppression and segregation, and it is now seldom used. But some older African-Americans still use the term to identify themselves, and the U.S. Census includes “Negro” as one of the boxes you can check under “Race.” “Negro” is best described as an archaic term that some African-Americans find objectionable, which means that it is civil and respectful not to use the term when talking to those African-Americans. How can using a word that is not a slur, and is not intended as a slur, to communicate to someone who does not find that word offensive or misleading, be wrong? It can’t be.
Sen. Reid is apologizing for the same reason that he does much of what he (like all politicians) does : it is politically expedient. Still, the apology further tightens the noose of political correctness, and stands for the proposition that an accurate analysis of political factors made without malice in private to a professional colleague becomes a misdeed when it is made public. I doubt that Reid cares, but his apology is more harmful than his supposed offense.