Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Leave Senator Harry Reid Alone: His Comments WEREN'T Racist

The coverage of Sen. Harry Reid’s comments (from the book Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin) that then-candidate Barack Obama stood a good chance of being elected President because he is “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” is truly much ado about nothing - despite contrary viewpoint.

Fortunately, in a CNN interview, Dr. Boyce Watkins defends Sen. Reid and opines that he is NOT a racist. Unfortunately, he opines that his comments were. Similarly, in a Fox News interview, Rev. Al Sharpton offers that Sen. Reid’s statements pale in comparison to those of former Senator-turned-lobbyist Trent Lott, while contending that he was offended by Reid‘s words.

For those who don’t remember, in 2002, at a birthday party for noted segregationist/longtime Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott said this:
“I want to say this about my state [Mississippi, which Lott represented]: When Strom Thurmond ran for president [in 1948, as a Dixiecrat], we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
(CNN.com 12/09/2002)

What did Trent mean by the “other problems”? Well, it might help to recall that, according to the same CNN article, Strom Thurmond - then a self-avowed segregationist - was quoted during his 1948 presidential campaign as saying that,
"All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
And his Dixiecrat Party’s platform declared that,
"We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
Clearly, Lott’s praise of Thurmond - and obviously his Dixiecrat platform as a cure-all for “all these problems over the years” - are no comparison to Sen. Reid’s comments.

But Watkins and Sharpton weren’t the only prominent Blacks negatively characterizing Reid’s comments - though they defended him personally. Washington Watch host, CNN contributor, and TV ONE commentator and host Roland Martin also called Sen. Reid’s comments “racially insensitive” yesterday on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. He repeated the assertion on the Larry King Show last night (hosted by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien) and - in stark contrast to Sharpton’s position - added further that a double standard exists between the way (I guess, Democrats and Blacks) are treating the Reid remarks versus those by Lott. Roland Martin missed the boat on this one.
Roland Martin [full disclosure: he IS my fraternity brother and I love him very much] opined on the TJMS,
“But it begs this question that has to be answered. Can a white Democrat get away with making a racially insensitive comment because they’re [sic] a Democrat?”
Shortly thereafter he added,
“But we have to ask a critical question: If a white Republican makes the kind of comment that Reid made, would African Americans be so forgiving, and look, the answer is no. There is no doubt that Reid is getting as pass on this because he is a Democrat.”

So why does Dr. Watkins characterize Reid’s comments as racist and Roland Martin call them “racially insensitive”? And why is Rev. Sharpton offended by them? They are true. Sen. Reid was merely pointing out the obvious - that the white American electorate is - and has historically been - more comfortable with lighter-skinned Blacks versus the darker hued ones; and more comfortable with those speaking without "Ebonics" - i.e., without a “Negro dialect".

And just to enforce the fact that even Blacks haven’t moved beyond color-consciousness themselves, Roland Martin - on Anderson Cooper 360 and later on Larry King - even referred to a study wherein it had been concluded that the American electorate (presumably Black as well as White) was more comfortable electing a lighter-hued Black person versus a darker one. On “Cooper” he further recalled the former practice of the “paper bag” test that at least one Black fraternity and Black sorority reportedly used to determine initiation eligibility. The test was to place a brown paper bag next to the applicant’s face. If the person was darker that the paper bag, pledging for him/her was prohibited. This provided a segue for Anderson Cooper to buttress the fact of color-consciousness amongst Blacks by showing a clip of a recent “doll test” with Black children.

For the unfamiliar, the "doll experiment" from the 1940s, was conducted by husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They asked black children to tell them which doll - using a white one and a black one - they thought looked most like them; and which one was good and which one was bad. They found that black children identified with and preferred white dolls to black ones. They further found that the children gave attributes of “good” and “pretty” to the white dolls and gave the black dolls attributes of “bad” and “ugly. They concluded that this was proof of internalized racism. Their research later became cornerstone evidence in the landmark Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision of Topeka, Kansas, which ended American school segregation.

In 2005, then-18-year-old filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the Clarks' experiment with 21 young black children at a daycare center in New York. It was a clip from her seven-minute documentary - “A Girl Like Me” - that Anderson Cooper then showed. In it, Kiri presented the children with two dolls—a black one and a white one. Then - like in the original experiment - Ms. Davis asked the children which doll they would rather play with; and which one they thought was "nice" and which was "bad." Fifteen of the twenty-one children preferred the white doll. Credit Soledad O’Brien for pointing out that these children’s preferences reflect societal influences upon them.

But, if you are appalled by the forgoing, revisit the September 9, 2008 Tyra Banks Show wherein Tyra spotlighted Black women who bleached their own skin as well as that of their children. And let’s not forget the recent pictures of a bleached-out, green-eyed Sammy Sosa. Taken in context then, Reid’s observation that the electorate preferred light-skinned Black candidates is just that - an observation! And as Soledad O'Brien offered, whites, blacks, and everyone talks about this phenomenon; just maybe not together. Which begs the questions: 1) Are some Whites angry at Sen. Reid for airing their dirty laundry relative to a preference for lighter skin? 2) Are some Blacks angry at him for airing theirs relative to the same thing?

Fortunately, Georgetown Prof. Michael Eric Dyson got it right yesterday. From the clips I saw on CNN, he wanted to get to the deeper issues of race in America and get away from the bashing of Reid. Actress Nancy Giles and BET news correspondent Jeff Johnson also got it right, as did Soledad O’Brien and President Obama. Shown in a clip from an upcoming TV ONE show entitled “Living The Dream”, Obama said that
“Harry Reid is a friend.”
The President then added that he had
“always been on the right side of history”,
and further that,
“For him to use in-artful language in an effort to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of it, makes no sense.”

Well, since the “light-skinned” remark has been completely debunked, let’s move to the comment: “no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one”. Tara Walls - a Black conservative commentator - seized upon that, asking
“what does light-skinned Negro have to do with it?”
on the Larry King Show. She also questioned just what constituted a “Negro dialect”. And William Bennett was seemingly upset by the assertion that President Obama could turn a “Negro dialect” on and off with the flip of a switch. Hmm.

For the record, Blacks AND Whites negatively stereotype aspects of decidedly Black vernacular. Segments of both groups refer to Black people speaking “Black slang” as speaking either “Ebonics” or a “Negro dialect” - both of which are the same. Additionally, Whites AND Blacks negatively stereotype aspects of a decidedly White vernacular. White people speaking with certain speech patterns are labeled by segments of BOTH groups as “country” or “hillbilly”.

And as for turning said vernacular on and off, many Blacks AND Whites do this. When Bill Clinton was on the campaign trail, he was said to “mirror” the speech patterns of whatever constituency he was in front of. Most often he used what the press called a “good ole boy” dialect, rather than calling it “hillbilly” or “country”. Additionally - when in front of a Black audience - Clinton was known to acclimate again, using some decidedly Black verbiage.

Black people are very familiar with the concept of acclimation. As Martin pointed out, Blacks are conditioned to walk, talk, and present themselves in such a way as to be acceptable to Whites - especially in order to get and keep a job. And yet there has always been the added pressure of showing to our “round-the-way homies” that we were still “down” in certain Black settings. This has typically entailed at least the occasional insertion of decidedly different verbiage to allay fears within that Black setting that the larger White world might have “changed” us.

So, I guess it all boils down to the use of the word “Negro”. Some have even said that this word alone shows that Sen. Reid is “out of touch”. But there is truly no agreed-upon label for Black people even amongst Black people. I tend to use the term “Black” in my writings simply because it has wide media acceptance and it is a shorter word than other designations. [I don’t type. I “hunt and peck”. Thus, shorter words are better.] But prevalent amongst my people are also the designations, Nubian, Hamitic, African American, and Afro-American to name a few. And yes, some still use the term Negro - although I mostly hear it when one of us is about to employ the more derogatory “N” word and makes a conscious choice to change it to “Negro”.

Is there now something wrong with being a Negro or is it merely passe? I mean, I can understand the reticence of my people to groupings imposed upon them by people other than ourselves. It may have even been a bit presumptuous to have lumped all races in the world into the three categories of Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid “back in the day”. [See how easily I slip in and out of different verbiage - using decidedly Ebonic phraseology.]

But even after these groupings were further divided, didn’t Black people remain Negroid? Didn’t White people remain Caucasoid? And aren’t the constant desire for divisions factors inherent in the “ethnic cleansing” we have endured for some time now?

I have never understood the racial divisions that gave rise to ethnic cleansing in Rwanda nor that which is currently underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For God’s sake they are all Black, Negroid, African. Neither did I understand the ethnic cleansing attenuate to the Serbian/Croatian conflict. They are all White, Caucasoid. The constant need to separate ourselves from a larger group is going to be the death knell to humanity, if we aren’t careful. 

After praising President Obama, Prof. Michael Eric Dyson added - rather correctly I think - that Obama is “loathe to speak about race”. Whether he is or not - as a biracial man, and President of this great nation - he’s duty-bound to take the lead. But even if he doesn't, one thing is crystal clear to me. Rather than spending any more time debating the sensitivity, political correctness, inappropriateness, repugnancy, or artfulness of Senator Harry Reid’s words, we need to get on with the business of changing the facts of his words.


  1. Phillip Smith January 12 at 7:23pm
    I have an opinion on the Reid comment but I too would like to move on since I think that it is now a political tool that is being used to gain a political advantage. There are other more important issues that need attention. I have grown weary hearing the debate on who and why the comment should offend.

    I found several comments offensive in the book. People are people and will say and do anything. As it pertains to matters of race I for one don't believe this post-racial era hype as I see hidden High-Tech racism

    I was impressed with your blog, so much so, I have shared the link on twitter and FBook...

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with you Phil. This whole thing Has been used as a political tool. That's why I felt the need to set the record straight AND why I am glad you decided to share the link. Let's take this thing viral. There are too many "pundits" getting the whole thing wrong.

  3. I, too, question what constitutes a "Negro dialect" and why the ability to use such a dialect is construed as a negative. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz could also turn a "Negro dialect" off and on based on the audience he was addressing. He was admired for that skill. It seems absurd that just because a white man makes the true statement that the president has that same ability it suddenly becomes a racist remark. I sometimes see this kind of event as deliberate misdirection. While folks are looking at Reid and his words as if the world will do a somersault because of them, other events of much more importance are occurring and being overlooked or ignored like President's Obama's desired war budget!

  4. Great point, Sabreen. Shabazz, aka Malcolm Little, aka Malcolm X indeed WAS admired for that ability. Thanks for reminding me. At the time, said ability was considered tantamount to being an effective communicator.

    And Degan, thank you for your comments also. I dropped by your blog. Like the incorporation of a comedic edge. I'll be reading AND commenting.

    The worst part about this whole debacle is the time TV media pundits spend making an issue out of a non-issue. I'm in favor of cutting the microphone and/or camera off once it is ascertained that a red-herring agenda is afoot. Then people like the four of us - who are obviously intelligent and conscionable - don't have to waste time correcting public focus and can get on with REAL issues.