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.”

“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:

We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”

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.

10 Responses to “Should Harry Reid resign?”

  1. Kevin says:

    Another excellent analysis, James. Sadly, if Steele is betting that Americans can't think intelligently about race, he's probably right.

  2. Tiffany says:

    Seriously?? In the light of the news reports coming out of Haiti right now, all of this is just identity politics.

    The real living consequences of slavery are to be found on the front page of the NY Times today. Please keep Haiti in your prayers and consider sending them support.


  3. James says:

    Thanks, Kevin.

    Tiffany, I appreciate that this is "just" about racial identity and identity politics, and it can seem trivial in comparison to a natural disaster like Haiti's earthquake, with estimates at this hour of perhaps a half-million dead.

    On the other hand, issues of racial identity and racial injustice affect many millions of people in profound ways every day. So I don't believe we should simply ignore the issue, and I don't believe I should suspend my efforts in this regard, any more than teachers in the U.S. would suspend their classes because of the news out of Haiti.

    In fact, as I watch the horrifying images coming out of Port-au-Prince, I'm constantly reminded of how this disaster relates to race. Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, and political turmoil has left the nation devoid of most of the infrastructure other nations take for granted. There's little question that the death toll from this earthquake will, in the end, be much higher because of Haiti's circumstances.

    Why is Haiti's situation what it is? The answer lies largely in race. Haiti's people are primarily descended from slaves imported into the French colony, and the revolt of those slaves led to the establishment of the first black republic. The subsequent history of how that nation's independence was treated by other sovereign states, and how race has impacted Haiti's interactions with the U.S. and other nations ever since, has been central to how Haiti arrived at its present condition.

    I think it's also safe to say that race will be a significant factor in how the outside world responds to the catastrophe in Haiti in the days and weeks ahead.

  4. Tiffany says:

    James, thanks for your response to my comment. As a mixed race person of African-American and Native American decent, I am aware firsthand that the politics of racial identity are important and can affect people. I am also fully aware of Haiti's history and the meaning that history has for Black Americans.

    My issue is this: Identity politics have become a way of distracting us from the real issues affecting people of color. When I say "real issues," I mean the economic and ideological forces that create inequality. So instead of having what I would consider to be a meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery, we end up embroiled in discussions that skirt around the subject, like whether or not it is politically correct to use the term "Negro" or "Light-skinned." I can assure you that most Black people have bigger problems to deal with than whether or not Harry Reid used either of those terms in a book he wrote. Michael Steel is an obvious exception.

    That is why it seemed surprising to me that your blog, which is supposed to be about the living consequences of the slave trade, mentioned nothing about the disaster in Haiti on the day it occurred and instead focused on the Reid controversy… something that appears to me to be a red herring manufactured by the right-wing.

  5. James says:

    Thanks for sharing those thoughts with us, Tiffany, and I think you have a very important point when you urge us not to let "identity politics" distract us from focusing on "the economic and ideological forces that create inequality."

    In fact, this blog's title, "The Living Consequences," is taken from a somewhat similar lament of mine in the documentary Traces of the Trade. In that moment, we're being filmed in a hotel room and the suggestion has made, quite strongly, that white people need to concentrate on gathering in whites-only groups to talk through white feelings about the legacy of slavery and the slave trade. My suggestion is that this approach risks being "self-indulgent," and that we should focus instead on the "living consequences" of that history for people today.

    However, one premise of this blog is that the legacy of slavery and race cannot be properly addressed unless more Americans understand our history of race and how it has impacted our society. This means not only understanding the material impact of that legacy for our society (and other societies, including Haiti), but also understanding the ways in which historical myths and misconceptions cloud our ability to see how, and why, race affects society today.

    As I tried to explain in my two posts on the Reid controversy, I do believe it's a red herring manufactured by his opponents on the right, but I also believe that this was a "teachable moment" about certain sensitivities around race. I also believe that these issues, and that fact that this could become a controversy at all, help us to understand how our racial discourse serves to distract us from properly understanding and addressing the legacy of race for our society.

    So I agree that most black people have bigger problems than Reid's remarks. But I also think that we aren't going to be able to tackle prejudice, or poverty and neglect, or crime, or other issues without ensuring that more people can see through the myths and red herrings that surround issues of race in this country.

    As for the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I didn't blog about that event simply because I didn't believe that I had any useful insights to offer, and no time mid-week to write an essay on the role that slavery and the slave trade played in Haiti's history and continue to play in its circumstances. If I were going to write a post on Haiti that would be relevant to this blog, in fact, I might have chosen to tackle the question of why it is that someone could suggest, in all seriousness, that Haiti is a "real issue" affecting black Americans today, as opposed to what their own leaders think and say about black citizens in private. While I think you have good reason for saying so, I think the answers aren't at all obvious to many Americans, and might help some readers understand more about how race is viewed in the U.S. today.

  6. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for your reply, James. I have no idea what you are alluding to in the last two sentences of your final paragraph, however.

  7. James says:

    I'm sorry that I wasn't more clear, Tiffany. In the last two sentences of my reply, I was suggesting that it's not at all obvious why Haiti is a "real issue" affecting black Americans, while the comments of the Senate majority leader about blacks and racial politics are not.

    In other words, I think you're absolutely right to say that we always need to bear in mind the "real issues affecting people of color," which you define as "the economic and ideological forces that create inequality."

    However, you dismiss as a distraction the views of one of the most senior American politicians on race and politics, and the reactions to his views, which I think reflect ideological forces directly impacting black Americans.

    Meanwhile, your central point was that the earthquake in Haiti is a prime example of one of those "real issues" affecting black Americans. Yet that disaster occurred in another country and has no obvious and immediate connection to the inequality currently facing Americans.

    I agree that foreign events such as a natural disaster are important issues for Americans to address, and as I said in those two sentences, "I think you have good reason for saying" that Haiti is a legitimate issue for black Americans. I'm just not sure the reasons why are simple or unproblematic, or are at all obvious to most Americans.

  8. Tiffany says:

    Our conflicting definitions of what constitutes a "real issue" is perhaps a matter of perspective.

    You write, "[The Haitian earthquake] occurred in another country and has no obvious and immediate connection to the inequality currently facing Americans." This may be true for white Americans, but when it comes to black people in the U.S., I disagree for two reasons:

    First, Black Americans are connected to Haiti because many of us have family ties there, whether that means close relatives or the kind of kinship that is based on shared African ancestry. Yes there are issues of colorism, but that should come as no surprise. Such is the legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

    Second, Haiti is significant to Black Americans because of its history. Without Haiti, there would have been no Denmark Vesey. Without Haiti, slavery in the United States may have continued well into the 20th century and perhaps beyond. Some would argue that without Haiti, there would have been no Louisiana Purchase. But I suspect the majority of white folks up in New England are too busy inventing a glorified history of abolitionism to recognize any of those facts.

    So yes Haiti is a different country, but thanks to slave traders like the DeWolf family, the fate of Black people in Haiti and Black people in the United States is really not as disparate as some may imagine. It is no coincidence that many of the pictures that began pouring out of Haiti 10 days ago are reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the people of Haiti and the large numbers of poor African Americans in the U.S. have yet another thing in common: They are largely invisible until disaster strikes.

    Their invisibility on your blog is what prompted me to say something.

    Thanks for your replies to my comments. I support your efforts here.

  9. Tiffany says:

    By the way, the NY Times today offered an interesting piece on Haiti's past:


  10. James says:

    Tiffany, I think these were, once again, great observations.

    It's true that some black Americans have family ties to Haiti. It's also true that all black Americans share African ancestry with most of the Haiti people. This, of course, is no different than talking about the plight of any African nation: many black Americans will feel particular connection to, and concern for, an African nation in trouble, while others will not. In general, my sense is that black Americans are more likely to feel this sort of connection to African nations than white Americans are to feel this way towards European nations. We could explore why this is, but I think it has everything to do with race in our politics and our society.

    In any case, I think the connection you're describing to Haiti goes well beyond the relatively small number of Americans with family ties to Haiti, or to the response of black Americans to a catastrophe in most African nations.

    I suspect that it's the history of Haiti, and its historical connection to the U.S., which provides a more powerful connection for black America, and it's certainly this connection which is more directly related to the theme of this blog, the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the history of Haiti and slavery is both a terrible commentary on how Europe and the U.S. dealt with slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, and an inspirational story, both then and now, of how enslaved peoples have responded to their captivity.

    I can't agree with you, however, about the role of Haiti's example in inspiring the end of slavery in the U.S. Denmark Vesey, and others like him, did not bring about emancipation. The South was not pressured into ending slavery by failed revolts, nor did these uprisings cause the South to secede from the Union, or the Union to finally settle, in 1865, on ending slavery at the end of the Civil War.

    I do agree that Haiti's revolution had important consequences for the U.S., including perhaps making possible the Louisiana purchase, and certainly in reinforcing slavery in the U.S., by demonstrating the commitment of the community of sovereign nations to the principle that no black nation would be tolerated and no slave revolt recognized.

    I suspect the majority of white folks up in New England are too busy inventing a glorified history of abolitionism to recognize any of those facts.

    Despite having disagreed with you about Haiti inspiring U.S. emancipation, I want to affirm that the glorious history of abolitionism in New England is largely a myth, and certainly played little direct role in the emancipation of northern or southern slaves.

    Their invisibility on your blog is what prompted me to say something.

    Thanks so much, Tiffany, for being willing to say this. I don't agree, as you know, that I should necessarily have reported on the victims of the earthquake on this blog, given its subject matter, or that the plight of Haiti's people is as parallel to that of black Americans as you believe. But I am very glad that you've raised this issue, and that my readers will have the chance to judge for themselves.

    I do believe, of course, that Haiti's history was profoundly shaped by slave traders like the DeWolfs. I also believe that Haiti's history reveals much about how slavery operated in the Americas. Where we differ most, I suspect, is that I believe Haiti's subsequent history, and its present predicament, have at least as much to do with how the U.S. has historically treated nations in its own back yard, and with universal issues of political and economic development, as it does with slavery and the revolt from France. This isn't to say, though, that the latter issues aren't still important in Haitian society, or that we couldn't draw useful parallels between U.S. and Haitian society in terms of how race and the legacy of slavery play out.

    I also want to affirm, as clearly as I can, that racial inequality and prejudice, and their effects today, are at the heart of this blog's subject matter. So the role of race in Hurricane Katrina would be entirely on point here, and to the extent that this blog explores international issues which parallel the legacy of slavery and race in the U.S., the role of slavery and race in Haiti's current situation are entirely appropriate here, as well.

    By the way, the NY Times today offered an interesting piece on Haiti’s past

    Thanks for sharing that with the rest of us, Tiffany. That op-ed is still in my inbox to read this morning, and I've been collecting a couple of observations and insights since you first posted. I'll see if I can come up with anything that seems new enough to be worthwhile to post here about Haiti.

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