A proposal to rename the main airport in Las Vegas for one of Nevada’s longest-serving Senators could get tricky if the current racial reckoning happening across the country has anything to do with it.
State officials have called to rename McCarran International Airport after former Sen. Harry Reid, who served more than three decades on Capitol Hill representing Nevada in both chambers of Congress. But, at least for this writer, any time Reid’s name is mentioned, it is nearly impossible not to be reminded of the time he used some colorful terms to describe Barack Obama.
But first, back to the airport.
The Clark County Commission, a panel of all Democrats, is expected to consider the name change at a meeting later this month, according to the Associated Press.
The person for whom the airport is currently named has a history of racism, which has partially fueled the calls for its name to be changed.
“Former Senator Pat McCarran leaves a dark cloud of racism and anti Semitism that have no place in our state, especially at the welcoming point for millions of international visitors from every walk of life,” an online petition to have the airport named says in part.
But if we rewind about 13 years ago, that was when Reid had some choice commentary about what he saw as Obama’s ability to code-switch, thanks in part to the color of the then-presidential candidate’s skin as well as the eloquence of his speech.
Reid, who was in his late 60s at the time in 2008, suggested that because Obama was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” he was destined to win the presidency.
Conversely, of course, Reid’s comments — perhaps dripping with implicit bias — suggest that he believed a candidate with darker skin who did not speak Obama’s brand of the Queen’s English would never stand a chance to win the White House.
It would be two more years before Reid’s comments would officially come to light, revealed in a book authored by two journalists who wrote: “Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.”
Reid promptly apologized — “I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words” — and Obama accepted it just as quickly, rendering the entire episode (to some people) one big nothing burger.
Omar Wasow, who co-founded the social media network Black Planet, wrote in the Root in 2010 that there was absolutely nothing wrong with what Reid said.
“Clearly, using ‘Negro dialect’ is about half-a-century behind the times, but does anyone think Reid meant ill by his anachronism?” Wasow asked before adding later: “more importantly, the substance of Reid’s comments is spot on.”
Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote in an op-ed for NewsOne at the time that America should use the opportunity to have a much-needed conversation about race.
“Rather than shooting down any political figure who states the obvious, we should figure out why it is the case that America would not vote for Obama if he were dark or were caught speaking in ‘negro dialect’ (although I have no clue what that means),” Watkins wrote. “White supremacist thinking is everywhere, and if we don’t have an honest conversation on race, we are going to continue running into the same old problems.”
Of course, the flip side of that argument is that an elected official serving in a national capacity with constituents who are African American should have known in 2008 that it is completely unacceptable for any white person to refer to a Black person as a Negro, period. Not knowing better opens the door to a host of other questions about Reid, including if he harbors any racist feelings, whether he knows it or not.
Calling Reid his “friend,” Obama said, “He apologized, recognizing that he didn’t use appropriate language, but there was nothing mean-spirited in what he had to say and he’s always been on the right side of the issues. The fact that we spend days on this instead of talking about the unemployment rate or talking about how we deal with critical issues like energy and health care is an indication of why I think people don’t understand what’s happening in Washington.”
Upping the ante on his racial rhetoric, Reid in 2009 went on to compare health care reform to slaves attaining their freedom.
In response to Republicans asking Democrats to “Slow down, stop everything, let’s start over,” on health care reform, Reid offered up his analogy to people who opposed the emancipation of slaves.
“You think you’ve heard these same excuses before? You’re right,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “In this country…there were those who dug in their heels and said, ‘Slow down, it’s too early. Let’s wait. Things aren’t bad enough.'”
One thing’s for sure: Words matter.
That truth was on display six years later when Reid — who, unlike McCarren, has a history of working to advance causes for African Americans — would be among the loudest voices calling Donald Trump a racist during an address on the Senate floor.
“It’s time for Republicans to stop closing their eyes to Donald Trump’s racism, and it’s time for reporters and journalists to be honest with the American people,” Reid told his Senate colleagues with less than two months to go before the 2016 election. “They owe America the truth. Through his words and deeds, Donald Trump is a racist.”