Yesterday, the blogosphere erupted in a firestorm of controversy over remarks by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2008 that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect.”

This is the second time in recent weeks that Senator Reid has found himself in hot water over issues relating to slavery and race. Last month, Reid drew controversy for comparing Republican opponents of health care reform to those who resisted abolishing slavery.

This time, he is facing calls from Republicans to step down as majority leader because of ill-considered remarks about the leader of his own party.

Reid’s comments were revealed in a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign, entitled Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Pain, and the Race of a Lifetime, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. In the book, the authors say that while Reid was officially neutral in the primary fight between Obama and then-Senator Hillary Clinton, in private he was “unequivocal” in his encouragement of Obama:

He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

This passage from the book appears to have been reported first by The Atlantic on Friday, and Senator Reid apologized for his choice of words on Saturday.

What, exactly, is this controversy about?

The substance of Reid’s remarks

According to the book, Reid was an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s candidacy for president, and was deeply impressed with his personal qualities.

Leaving aside his choice of words, was Reid’s private analysis of the role of Obama’s race in the campaign flawed or inappropriate? No, it was not. Every political analyst considered race to be an important factor in Obama’s “historical candidacy,” and it was widely believed that Obama invoked blackness is ways that were more palatable for many white voters than, say, the racial qualities of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s.

Specifically, Obama is a relatively light-skinned black American, and having a lighter skin tone tends to evoke more favorable responses from white (and black) Americans. Moreover, it would seem to be beyond doubt that Obama drew more favorable responses from white voters as a result of his speaking style and demeanor, which are much less likely to evoke stereotypes of black males, in the minds of white voters, than those whose vocabulary, intonation, and other speech patterns or mannerisms are drawn heavily from a black subculture.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Reid was suggesting that we ought to elect black candidates who are lighter-skinned or speak in ways that are comfortable to moderate white voters. Or that he is more comfortable with black politicians who have these qualities.

The fact that black Americans with darker skin or speech drawn from outside the predominantly white mainstream face more discrimination is certainly not one that Americans should be comfortable with. To put it bluntly, while the nation may have been ready to elect a black president, it was not ready to elect any black president. But this is surely not a phenomenon to ignore, either in addressing racial injustice or in assessing the prospects of black political candidates.

Reid’s choice of words

Was Reid’s choice of words so poor that he needed to apologize to the candidate or to the public? Perhaps. Certainly his words touched indelicately on painful issues of race, and remind us all that racial discrimination still touches some black citizens much more than others. But this was, after all, a private conversation, and I think it’s a matter of opinion just how much one needs to apologize for private remarks which are phrased awkwardly but are entirely defensible in their meaning.

Did Reid display racism in using the word “Negro”? Yes and no.

The significance of race in our nation’s history is both broad and deep, and we have only just begun to eradicate the language, cultural patterns, and institutional remnants of a system born to defend the practice of slavery. As a result, it is easy for unfortunate words like “Negro” to be used, especially by older Americans and even when the intention clearly isn’t racist.

Is the use of this word harmful? Yes. Does it promote racist attitudes? In some ways, yes. Did it merit an apology for these reasons? Again, yes. Does it reveal, however, that Reid was operating within a racist mindset? No, of course not. He was strongly promoting a black candidate for president, and not out of sinister or selfish motives, while privately disparaging him, but out of a desire to see a highly qualified black candidate in office. He was simply expressing a well-founded belief that moderate white voters would respond better to this black candidate than to many others, and without endorsing those attitudes at all.

The word “Negro,” however, has very different meanings to different generations of Americans. Survey research shows that older white Americans often use, or accept the use of, the word “Negro” as a standard, neutral way to refer to blacks. Older black Americans, on the other hand, tend to consider the word to be quite insulting, associating it with dreadful attitudes which many fear still lie just beneath the surface of white America. Younger Americans of all races are much more likely to view the word as antiquated, but to associate its use with racial prejudice (presumably because of the contexts in which children have been exposed to the word in recent decades).

So Reid’s use of the word “Negro” is certainly freighted with connotations of racial prejudice, primarily for older black Americans and for younger Americans regardless of their race.

Does this mean that Reid intended to suggest racial prejudice? Clearly not. Did he, nonetheless, convey racial prejudice to many citizens? Clearly yes. Should he, as a politician, have apologized for that impact on many listeners? I think that’s entirely appropriate, given the sensitivity and awareness which he should have as a public representative, and the care with which he should choose his language, even in private.

Should Reid be condemned, however, or forced to resign because of the use of this word?

To answer this question, I can only think back to my experience with other DeWolf slave-trade descendants, traveling across the “triangle trade” route plied by our ancestors, from New England to western Africa to Cuba and back. When we took this trip for the documentary Traces of the Trade, one of the DeWolf descendants on the trip consistently used the word “Negro” to refer to black Americans. The use of this word was quite jarring to me, as one of the youngest DeWolf descendants on the journey, and strongly evoked an era of unapologetic racial prejudice. But for this older slave-trade descendant, the word was clearly one learned in childhood and innocent of such a connotation. Should we educate even older Americans on the meaning of their words for less privileged groups? Absolutely. Should we condemn someone for instinctively falling back the language of their youth, especially while we see them struggling to break free of the racial barriers of the past (whether by exploring the actions of their ancestors, or by promoting the campaign of a black candidate for president)? In my view, absolutely not.

Lott and the double standard

Are Reid’s critics right in saying that keeping him as majority leader would reflect a double standard? That he would be facing powerful calls from within his own party to step down if he were a Republican office-holder?

These critics are pointing to the case of Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who stepped down as Senate majority leader in 2002 after video surfaced of Lott’s remarks celebrating Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday. Lott referred to Thurmond’s campaign for president in 1948, noting that his own state had voted for Thurmond that year, and said that if Thurmond had been elected president, the nation would have avoided “all these problems” in the intervening years.

The problem was that Thurmond’s campaign that year was under the banner of the segregationist Dixiecrat Party, and Thurmond’s campaign was largely about race. The party’s platform openly called for “the segregation of the races” and “the racial integrity of each race,” and Thurmond himself offered such campaign statements as this one:

“All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.”

Is the difference between Reid and Lott merely that one is a Democrat and one a Republican? That one is considered to be on the side of black Americans and presumed not to be a racist? That one spoke in private and the other in public?

I believe there’s more to the difference in treatment than that. As former Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) suggested yesterday in defending Reid, there is no indication that there was any prejudice behind Reid’s remarks, and every reason to believe that Reid was, in fact, being progressive on race. Furthermore, Ford notes that Reid has an established record in support of civil rights.

By contrast, Senator Lott had a record of opposing civil rights legislation, having voted against renewing both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and against the Martin Luther King Day holiday. Lott had also spoken out before in favor of Thurmond’s 1948 campaign, in ways which suggested he approved of Thurmond’s support of segregation and opposition to even the earliest and most fundamental civil rights legislation. None of this is beyond the pale of American politics, but it surely casts what appeared, to many, to be racially disparaging remarks in a very different light than would otherwise have been the case.

2 Responses to “Harry Reid and light-skinned Negroes”

  1. Carolyn Trupti Israe says:

    Agree with this letter, even before reading it. Private remarks. No ill intent, to Obama or racial justice for black (African-American) community.

    Remarks are true, even obvious, and are significant considerations. I have seen black community prejudice against its darker members, even children– not to speak of the white Euro-American) community. It's obvious that lack of cultural difference and dialect in anyone makes her/him more palatable to the public, especially when s/he's running for elective office.

  2. Should Harry Reid resign? | The Living Consequences says:

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