Recently, Senator Harry Reid sat down for an interview with KNPR’s “State of Nevada” and, among other things, said he hoped that Republican opposition to President Barack Obama was based on principle and not because “he’s African American.”
Naturally, those on the right wailed that Reid was playing the race card. Other analytical sorts were more cynical or dubious. But a couple incidents reported that same morning indicate he might not have been so off base.
In one, Oprah Winfrey recounted shopping at an upscale boutique in Switzerland and asking to see a purse. The clerk replied that Winfrey couldn’t afford that purse. The Swiss Office of Tourism since has apologized to Winfrey, but Rush Limbaugh doubted her account and said it was probably because ‘The Oprah’ is fat.
In the other, Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, advocated a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and stronger border security, not simply because all that makes sense, but because—sigh—“There are people that …can’t tell the difference between a Hispanic person and an Arab person. And if you get an Arab that’s trained, that’s coming into this country to be a terrorist, they can mingle in and they can get in here. Then they could do damage.”
None of this means the opposition to Obama isn’t also based on principle and ideological differences.
But it’s especially interesting to ponder as an African American state senator, Kelvin Atkinson, who recently announced that he is gay, makes noises about running for secretary of state. And as Ricki Barlow, an African American Las Vegas city council member, expresses interest in being state controller.
No African American has won one of Nevada’s six major constitutional offices. Only two African Americans have gotten so far as the general election: Joe Neal, who lost his governor’s bid in 2002, and Rose McKinney-James, defeated for lieutenant governor in 1998. It’s easy to argue that race had little or nothing to do with either outcome: Neal ran as a liberal willing to listen to the federal government on Yucca Mountain against Kenny Guinn, a popular incumbent, while McKinney-James faced entertainer and Clark County Commissioner Lorraine Hunt, who certainly was a fine candidate.
One African American has won election to the Nevada Supreme Court. Justice Michael Douglas has been an example of an excellent jurist, but he can tell stories of being viewed differently because he’s African American. He’ll also tell you that things are much better than they used to be. And if you go down a list of African-American legislators, Clark County commissioners and Las Vegas city council members, you’ll find only one or two who have been elected outside of districts with a significant minority population.
Several explanations rooted in economics or personal ambitions or bloc voting are possible, but it’s hard not to think that race just might be an issue. We cannot know what happens in each person’s mind. But we can be wise and, instead of attacking or dismissing what Reid said, look in the mirror and think about it.