Monday, November 10, 2003

Does He Get It?

Leonard Pitts, Jr., writes this thoughtful commentary in today’s Miami Herald on Dean’s troubles with the Confederate flag:

I have no problem with what Howard Dean was trying to say. It’s what he actually said that troubles me.

Specifically, the Democratic presidential candidate told an Iowa reporter that he wants to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

It was an inarticulate way of saying an important thing: that Dean wants to reach out to poor whites in the South.

But because he somehow managed to say something else entirely, the former Vermont governor triggered predictable criticisms of his racial sensitivity or lack thereof. Then he compounded the error. The axiom goes that the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Dean, who has apparently never heard that one, instead engaged in a prickly defense of his remark at a Democratic debate last week in Boston. He fended off sharp criticism from his rivals and doggedly refused to apologize.

While conceding the obvious — that the Confederate flag is ”a loathsome symbol” of racism — he also cited the need for the Democratic party to offer a “big tent.”

”I make no apologies,” said Dean, “for reaching out to poor white people.”

It should be obvious why the candidate’s reasoning insults blacks. He suggests that the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituents should be ready to share the aforementioned big tent with people who hate them.

But you know who else ought to be insulted? Poor white people. After all, they are, in Dean’s inference, synonymous with racism and its symbols. Yes, there has historically been a vivid streak of bigotry in that stratum of society. But anyone who thinks bigotry is the exclusive province of poor white folk has obviously never heard of John Rocker. Or, for that matter, Louis Farrakhan.

The real tragedy of Dean’s comments, though, is not the affront it gives, but the opportunity it misses. It’s commendable — even visionary — that he seeks to champion the concerns of poor white people. As the media have made poverty evermore a synonym for black and brown, we have lost sight of the fact that the majority of America’s underclass is white. Those folks have been marginalized and ignored for years, unless you count being enlisted as foot soldiers in the culture wars over gay rights and affirmative action. Meantime, their own needs have gone largely unaddressed.

Once you comprehend that, you’re in a position to comprehend the conclusion Martin Luther King Jr. ultimately reached. Namely, that poor people of whatever heritage have more in common than in contention. They never seem to see that, largely because race, the great American dividing line, has been used to keep them from seeing it. To keep them separate when by rights they should be shoulder to shoulder. So you wonder: What would happen if poor folk ever came together across racial lines, ever coalesced their votes into a political force and pushed their issues — healthcare, the minimum wage, affordable housing — into the national agenda?

The answer is a word: revolution.

Indeed, there are those who think it’s no accident King was struck down shortly after he pointed his movement in that direction.

Now here’s Dean, who seemed — seemed — to point in that same direction, except that he tripped over his tongue along the way. He muddled his message by invoking one of the most incendiary symbols of Southern racism, then stubbornly and stupidly refused to concede his error. It wasn’t until the day after the debate that Dean finally expressed remorse for any ”pain” his remarks had caused.

Which was, by that time, too little too late.

I suspect that Dean, even at this late date, still doesn’t get it. I don’t think he quite understands what he did wrong.

Much less what he very nearly did right.

After reading many transcripts of what Dean actually said in the various versions and venues he’s been using for the last nine months, plus how he apologized for it, I think he does get it, from both angles, and he’s had what we call in education a “teachable moment” in the process. The true test, however, will be if or when he makes another gaffe, he’s made the most of that moment.