Wed 13 Jan, 2010
Tags: Barack Obama, Dialect, Harry Reid, Negro, Skin tone, U.S. Census, U.S. Senate
I had hoped that the imbroglio over Harry Reid’s remarks on race would have died down by now, but unfortunately that is not the case.
Those who have read my previous post about Reid’s remarks know that I don’t see any reason why Reid should resign as Senate majority leader, or even why his remarks should be considered scandalous.
I do believe, however, that this situation, unlike the dispute between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley, genuinely constitutes a “teachable moment.” This is why I’m not surprised that the public back-and-forth about what Reid said has continued so vehemently, and why I want to take the time to elaborate on several issues I raised on Monday.
Specifically, I want to say more about the truth of what Reid said about how people respond to skin tone and dialect, elaborate on the history and meaning of the word “Negro,” and say one or two things about how even plain truths can be sensitive to discuss in the context of race.
I mentioned on Monday that Reid was correct to point out that skin tone will affect the fortunes of a political candidate in this country, and indeed, that Americans of all races tend to respond differently to lighter- and darker-skinned blacks.
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, among many others, affirmed in his column yesterday that this is a highly sensitive subject among Americans, but nevertheless a profoundly important truth. He notes perceptively that bias on the basis of skin tone is also rarely discussed because the particular way in which we understand race in this country approaches the issue in a black-and-white way: people are either white, or black, or of some other race. President Obama is black, and only occasionally, in passing, are we reminded that he is, in fact, as white as he is black. The logic here is entirely circular: we tend to speak of Obama as being simply black because, in this country, being part-black means being treated by the majority as black, because of how we see race in this country.
When we filmed Traces of the Trade in Cuba, we had to address the fact that Cubans (like many in this hemisphere, outside the U.S.) tend not to think of race in these categorical terms (“white” or “black”), but rather in shades of gray. Cubans, in other words, think very much in racial terms, but by and large, they do not sort each other into just two racial categories. Instead, they tend to view each other along a spectrum of color, from white to black, with skin tone determining exactly where one falls along the social spectrum. In this country, by contrast, we tend to speak in racial absolutes, largely for historical reasons (the so-called “one-drop” rule designed to reinforce slavery, which still dominates our thinking today) and largely because race exists only as a shared social understanding, and the reality is that the dominant group in this country still tends to think of their fellow citizens as being simply white or black. In actuality, however, Americans also tend to privilege those with lighter complexions over those with darker skin. (For a popular culture reference showing how this issue is sensitive, but well understood, in black culture, see Spike Lee’s 1988 film, School Daze.)
This skin-color prejudice is not simply a matter of opinion, or of popular belief. Scientific research bears it out in a wide variety of contexts, including voter evaluation of political candidates, but also in employment opportunities, social interactions, and the criminal justice system. For instance, lighter-skinned blacks are more likely to have a job, to have a more desirable job, and to earn more than darker-skinned blacks. Among convicted murderers, blacks with lighter skin are less than half as likely to receive a death sentence from a jury than those who have darker skin and other physical features traditionally associated with blacks.
This evidence, by the way, also makes it very difficult to believe that blacks now have equal opportunities in this country, unencumbered by the weight of past or present prejudice, and will succeed or fail based primarily on their individual values and willingness to get ahead. If that were really true, then skin tone would be a minor factor at best in employment success or criminal behavior.
Why are lighter-skinned blacks the beneficiaries of favoritism? There are many reasons. Historically, lighter-skinned slaves were often the children of slave owners or their families, which could bring substantial benefits in terms of education, more desirable working conditions, or even freedom. Even without assistance, lighter-skinned blacks could more easily escape and vanish into white society, and were much less likely to be dragged back into slavery. Circumstances such as these could lead to suspicion or hostility, on the one hand, and on the other hand to lighter-skinned men and women being seen as more desirable spouses.
This preference for lighter skin, however, goes well beyond historic circumstances here in the U.S. As I’ve mentioned, prejudice based on skin tone is common in the rest of the Americas. This prejudice goes beyond the traditional slave societies of this hemisphere, however, and can be seen in places as far away as China and Japan. The reasons are complex, but they include the global dominance of light-skinned Europeans for centuries and the prejudice for lighter skin that has resulted. There is also the simple fact that for those of European ancestry who retain prejudice towards darker-skinned peoples, their prejudice is often less towards those who look more like themselves.
As I said on Monday, the word “Negro” may be outdated, but it is hardly a racist word, or an indication that Senator Reid is racist. This isn’t to say that the use of “Negro” isn’t harmful in certain ways, but it is an anachronism that is still widely, and most harmlessly, embraced by many Americans, white and black, of a certain age.
A little bit of history is in order here. It was only in the 1960s that activists began making the case that “Negro” was a term which, because of its historic connotations, implies black inferiority. Stokely Carmichael is widely credited with coining the phrase “black power” in 1966 and with popularizing the word “black,” and the argument against “Negro,” in his 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. Because this switch occurred in the modern era, we have fairly reliable polling data on the shift: according to contemporary polls, a majority of black Americans switched from preferring “Negro” to “black” between 1968 and 1974. By the 1980s, the word “Negro” had almost entirely been banished from the public sphere as a demeaning term.
Because this shift occurred so swiftly and decisively, and before many of us who are adults today were even conscious of such matters, many younger Americans today do not even realize that “Negro” was considered the most polite and respectful way to refer to black Americans until the 1970s.
In fact, the word “Negro” had been, in its turn, the deliberate choice of black activists as the most proper term to use. Previously, the most common term for blacks had been “colored,” and it was W.E.B. Du Bois, following the lead of Booker T. Washington, who instigated the change to “Negro” in the 1920s. Du Bois argued that “Negro” was “etymologically and phonetically” preferable to “colored,” “African,” or any of the “hyphenated” choices.
Today, polling indicates that most black Americans have no preference between “black” and “African-American.”
Because of this history, many older white Americans still use the term “Negro,” and do so simply because it was the most polite term when they came of age. I mentioned on Monday that one of my fellow DeWolf descendants in Traces of the Trade used “Negro” consistently to refer to blacks during filming. This usage was uncomfortable for me, as someone too young to think of “Negro” as anything other than an odd, and probably insulting, term, but this fellow traveler was clearly speaking quite respectfully of “Negroes.”
Are older white Americans wrong to continue using this word? May they stand by the language they learned in their youth, or is “Negro” so tainted that it is beyond the pale?
I think the answer lies in the fact that many older black Americans, too, continue to think of themselves as “Negroes.”
This disconcerting fact emerged publicly just last week, when the U.S. Bureau of the Census announced that it would retain “Negro” as a choice on the 2010 Census form. This decision is not merely a mindless continuation of the century-old practice of including “Negro” on the Census. It arose because on the last Census, in 2000, more than 56,000 Americans chose to write in the term “Negro” for their race—even though that term was already listed as one of the choices. In other words, those 56,000 Americans were either making a mistake, by not seeing that “Negro” was already one of their pre-printed choices, or else were making some sort of a statement to emphasize their preference. It’s probably safe to assume that the vast majority of respondents who prefer “Negro” simply checked the box for “Black, African-American, or Negro,” meaning that the total number who prefer “Negro” is probably quite high.
Finally, to return to Senator Reid’s use of the word “Negro,” he did so in a very specific context: referring to an established, academic term, “Negro dialect.”
What is “Negro dialect”?
The term “Negro dialect” properly refers to certain words which slaves and former slaves used, and which they retained and passed down through their families. The “Negro dialect” survived well into the twentieth century, as documented during the New Deal of the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project. Since that time, the use of these distinctive words has essentially disappeared, owing to the passage of time, the blending of cultures, and common education.
So when Reid referred to Obama as being free of a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” he was clearly using the phrase incorrectly.
What did Reid mean by a “Negro dialect”? The context makes clear that he was making a clumsy effort to refer to contemporary differences between dominant American speech patterns, and speech that is widely recognized as distinctive to many black Americans.
Was Reid wrong to suggest that black Americans often speak in a manner that is distinctively “black”? No, he was not. Many linguists study, and write about, a dialect of American English spoken by many black Americans, which they generally refer to as “African-American Vernacular English.”
Was Reid wrong to suggest that black Americans can and do, at least in some cases, alter their speech to suit the context? That blacks, and particularly black politicians, choose to do this largely because both black and whites audiences respond better to language that indicates the speaker is “one of them”? Of course not.
These are well-established facts, and are hardly unique to those who can speak in black vernacular English. Politicians of all stripes modulate their speech for difference audiences, as do many people outside that profession. This is what linguists call “code-switching,” and it is ubiquitous in politics.
As Ruth Marcus blogged this week:
[D]o we all have to pretend we don’t know what Reid is talking about? There is a distinctly recognizable African American voice and some African Americans dial it up or down depending on the setting. It was striking during the campaign how Hawaii-born, Indonesia-raised, Chicago-living Obama sounded so strikingly southern when he was campaigning in southern states.
She could easily have added that it is striking how many politicians, campaigning in the south, sounds noticeably more “southern.” The same is true of politicians speaking before black audiences, or before voters with the distinctive accents of northern New England. The only difference is that many politicians cannot credibly, or at all, switch into a southern, black, or northern New England manner of speaking. Most, if not all, black politicians, and a great many black Americans, are well-practiced, out of necessity, at speaking in a less distinctively “black” way in front of whites.
Marcus could also have added that Obama is a master at code-switching, and that is both a highly respected skill among politicians and one which has nothing in particular to do with race. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, Obama proved that he could speak in ways which appealed to audiences whose references spanned Malcolm X to Jay-Z. As Zadie Smith has observed, Obama is capable of code-switching within a single sentence:
Awesome God comes to you straight from the pews of a Georgia church; poking around feels more at home at a kitchen table in South Bend, Indiana.
Is any of this offensive to blacks?
If everything Reid said is true, if awkwardly phrased, and if he gave no indication that he likes how many Americans respond better to lighter-skinned candidates with dominant speech patterns, should anyone be taking offense?
I’ve said that it wasn’t inappropriate for Reid to apologize to anyone who was offended by, for instance, his use of the word “Negro” in an age where most people find that term condescending, at best. Of course, many people will take offense at the mere mention of issues such as the disadvantages suffered by those with darker skin, or will assume (as Dr. King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, has apparently done with Reid) that the speaker must be endorsing such attitudes, but that doesn’t make it right to take offense.
In this connection, I leave you with the words of Sandy Banks of the L.A. Times:
I don’t know why I should be offended.
If anyone is insulted, it should be whites — whom Reid accused implicitly of being willing to vote for a black man only if he talks like them and is not too black.
I think the next apology ought to come from Michael Steele — the light-skinned, dialectically flexible African American head of the Republican National Committee.
Steele has called for Reid to step down as majority leader, likening him to Trent Lott [who repeatedly praised Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president and who repeatedly voted against fundamental civil rights legislation].
Either Steele is playing politics with a combustible case, or he thinks Americans are so incapable of thinking intelligently about race that we can’t tell the difference between Lott and Reid.