The Common Ground of Reid and Steele: From White Racial Framing to Hegemonic Whiteness



There’s been a lot said about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nevada) comments in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new book Game Change, which hit bookstores yesterday.

The authors quote Reid as saying Obama, as a black candidate, is successful because of his “light-skinned” appearance alongside his speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Along these lines, I refer readers to Joe’s post from yesterday, which deals with the “white racial framing” of Reid’s remarks.

Yet, one of the most vociferous challenges to Reid’s comments comes from GOP chairman Michael Steele. On Sunday, Steele called for Reid to step down. The remarks, Steele stressed, were just as contemptuous as those made by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who once praised Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential candidacy.

As a former student of mine, Taylor Harris, wrote:

Forget Michael Steele’s inane comparison of Reid’s comments to Trent Lott’s in 2002. Lott endorsed a segregationist, Reid endorsed a fair-skinned Ivy-Leaguer. As national anti-racist educator and author Tim Wise posted on his Facebook page, “That’s like the difference between saying, on the one hand, ‘gee Tim, you don’t look Jewish,’ and ‘Wow, those Nazis were really on to something.’ One is insensitive and stupid, while the other is monstrous.

Whether Steele is right or wrong in demanding an apology and a resignation is moot. This is the same Michael Steele who recently remarked that African Americans should join the Republican Party because he was going to offer “fried chicken and potato salad,” or his very recent remarks in which he matter-of-factly dropped the phrase “Honest injun.” Here, both Reid and Steele are employing the same historically-embedded worldview—one of white racial framing.

Rather than examine how white supremacist invective invades the wordplay of both the left and the right, the debate remains hijacked by the familiar “culture war” saga of red v. blue and right v. left. Most discourse centers on whether the left only criticizes the right for racism and excuses it amidst its own ranks, or whether or not Steele (and the right) is engaging in hypocritical political opportunism as a way of jump-starting predicted Republican gains in the House and Senate come the next election cycle.

In either case Reid implicitly reproduces the notion that being “too black” is a political liability in our supposedly “post-racial” age, while Steele explicitly reproduces a virulent stereotype ripe from the text of Amos ‘n Andy, the bulk of the discourse misses that white supremacist discourse has been so normalized that is has become common-sensed or “hegemonic.” Such white supremacist logic knows no political boundaries and cannot be reduced to such.

My own sociological research bears this out. In a forthcoming article in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies (advance copy here), I present data from two politically-opposed racial organizations: a white nationalist group and a white antiracist group. I found that both often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust understanding of white and non-white identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.

In particular, both groups engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness”—they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life. These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured. Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites. As just one example, and akin to Leslie and Joe’s book, I found that both groups reproduce overt and hostile racism in private settings whereby they feel more free to engage in language and actions deemed politically incorrect. For those whites that didn’t “go along with the crowd,” they often found themselves the brunt of jokes, marginalized within their respective organizations, and framed by others as somehow lacking in mental, physical, and/or cultural acuity.

Unless we can have a more robust public discussion of how white supremacist logic has invaded the dominant discourse of both the left and right, and intimately influences how many whites are encouraged to create a sense of their own racial selves, I’m afraid we may be missing the larger point.

Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race. He can be reached at MHughey@soc.msstate.edu. His website is http://mwh163.sociology.msstate.edu