At a Senate hearing for Gerald Reynolds, who was appointed to head the
Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, Sen. Ted Kennedy
put forth an ugly display that raised delicate questions of racism--yes,
racism--that demand exploration.
Given that no charge is bandied about more frequently, it is a label
that should be applied only after great deliberation. Democrats have
robbed the term of much of its power by crying wolf with breathtaking
regularity, which is a terrible disservice to the millions of Americans
who cope with prejudice on a daily basis.
Many will protest that someone renowned as a longtime defender of
civil rights could never be considered a racist. But racism is much
broader than one's policy positions, and can be found in the way one
treats a fellow human being. While grilling Reynolds, who is black,
Kennedy patronized him in a manner that he most likely would not have
treated a white conservative.
The most frequent, and most pernicious, form of racism confronted by
minorities is not the use of racial epithets or the denial of jobs or
other opportunities, but the more subtle bigotry of disrespect and
diminished expectations. One common manifestation is when a white
person feels the need to "explain" something as if talking to a young
Kennedy, who was over 30 minutes late because he was attending a
party, began by noting that Reynolds has an impressive resume, but this
was mere pretext, as he immediately questioned his qualifications for
the post. Although Reynolds has extensive experience in both public
policy inside the beltway and private legal practice, Kennedy
"explained" to Reynolds that the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights is
a "highly technical" position.
When Reynolds attempted to spell out his credentials, Kennedy abruptly
interrupted, snorting, "What have you done in the last four years in any
of these areas, any of these areas?"
Given that no major educational reform, aside from the bipartisan
overhaul signed this January, has been enacted in the past four years,
why would Kennedy arbitrarily pick that time frame as the benchmark for
relevant experience? Well, Reynolds left the Center for New Black
Leadership, where he devoted half his time to education policy, in late
1998, making four years an exceedingly convenient cut-off. Since
leaving CNBL, Reynolds has worked for a public utility covering "highly
technical" regulatory issues, which Kennedy dismissed as
To deem Reynolds unqualified because he hasn't handled education
policy for nearly four years is both silly and insulting. But Kennedy's
words alone were not what turned my stomach; it was his condescending
tone and body language. It reminded me of the experience many black
friends had in high school with white guidance counselors. My bright
and talented friends more or less received the same message: "You're
smart, but you're not quite the right fit for honors-level courses."
Kennedy, whether intentionally or not, was playing to latent, racist
perceptions of black ignorance and ineptitude by challenging the
competence of someone with a law degree from Boston University and a
decade of legal experience, including more than three years working
directly on civil rights and education policy. Reynolds is eminently
qualified for the post. Several of his predecessors at OCR had zero
experience in education policy, and one was not even a lawyer, yet
Kennedy objected to none of them.
The cantankerous Senator is hardly a sweetheart to white
conservatives, but he's never sought to topple one as experienced as
Reynolds as incompetent. But it's not as simple as to say Kennedy
attacked Reynolds solely because of the nominee's race.
Kennedy undeniably would not have attacked Reynolds if he were a
leftist, because that's the "acceptable" worldview for someone who's
black. Reynolds probably would have also gotten a free pass if he had
served a long stint at the NAACP or the Urban League. But merely
holding such expectations about acceptable beliefs or career choices
premised upon one's skin color
Kennedy has clearly done a lot to advance the cause of civil rights
and worked hard to improve the standing of many minorities, but that is
a different question than any racism he may harbor or exhibit. We need
to expand our conception of racism, while maintaining vigilance against
It is possible that Kennedy's demeaning attitude toward Reynolds was
mere rudeness. But if he did treat or think of Reynolds differently
because of the color of his skin, then we should call a spade a spade.