Reid out of touch, but right

January 14, 2010


Somebody please tell Harry Reid there are no Negroes in America.

There haven’t been since the late 1960s, which is when black people arrived and drove that term out of favor. The person who uses it without irony, as Reid did, paints himself as a geezer out of touch with the last 40 years, the kind of person who still calls rock music a fad.

That said, there is little else to complain about in the quote from the Senate majority leader that has political types hyperventilating. Said quote is from “Game Change,” the new book on the 2007-08 presidential campaign. It has Reid, a supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama, privately suggesting the country was finally ready to elect a black man, especially one who, like Obama, is “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

A firestorm has raged ever since, with GOP Chairman Michael Steele likening Reid’s remarks to the gaffe that got Sen. Trent Lott in trouble eight years ago. In his online column, Journal-isms, Richard Prince writes that panelists on the Sunday talk shows “were shocked, shocked that there is ‘colorism’ in America and a perceived ‘Negro dialect.’ ... Coincidentally, there were no journalists of color in any of the discussions.”

Too bad. They might have helped frame the one question that has gone conspicuously unaddressed in the loud debate over what Reid said:

Was he right?

Sure he was. Moreover, there is something unbearably precious in the idea of pundits bypassing that question to debate the existence of colorism and black dialect.

Anyone who doubts the existence of the former should acquaint herself with the “doll tests” conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark in the ’30s and ’40s and revived by young filmmaker Kiri Davis in the 2000s. Those tests found black children describing otherwise identical white dolls as “nice” and “good” and black ones as “bad.” If colorism is this pronounced among black people — and it is — is anyone naive enough to believe it has no beachhead among white ones?

Anyone who doubts the existence of a black dialect (actually “dialects,” plural) denies self-evident truth. Of course there is, just as there is a Boston Irish dialect, a Southern white dialect, a Midwestern dialect. So what?

Anyone who doubts Obama’s ability to turn said dialect off and on has never heard him work a black audience — or reporter. I interviewed Obama once. He quoted something I had written about him, whereupon I expressed surprise that he knew my work. Obama’s reply: “Oh yeah, brother, I read you.”

I have trouble imagining him addressing George F. Will in a similar manner. I also have trouble understanding why this calibration of language would be problematic. Don’t the members of most groups — ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, occupational — speak differently among their own?

The gist of Reid’s comment, then, is that a dark-skinned man who announced his candidacy thusly — “I’m gon’ run for president. I ax for your support” — would have trouble being taken seriously. I find that an unremarkable contention. George W. Bush couldn’t pronounce “nuclear” if you put a gun to his head, and you need a GPS and a Sherpa to get through Sarah Palin’s winding utterances, but their race buys them at least a measure of forbearance that — call me crazy — I don’t think a dark-skinned candidate could expect.

To believe Reid did something wrong in talking about that is to buy the silly contention that talking about race is, of itself, racist. The morally malleable Michael Steele knows better. He also knows full well that Trent Lott’s sin was to suggest America would have been better off had an arch-segregationist been elected president in 1948. That’s not close to what Reid did.

No, Reid’s sin was to be blunt, indecorous, impolitic.

And right.


leedavid 8 years, 5 months ago

Of course Reid was right, no one argued that Reid was wrong...however, we all know better than to make racially charged, irresponsible statements. And of course the word "negro" disappeared years ago...or should have.

Journalist of color have not been a part of this discussion????

I could have sworn NPR's Juan Williams was African-American...thats a "negro" if Harry Reid reads this.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 5 months ago

Pitty-pats out of touch with some of his fellow ____s (fill in the blank with the noun of your choice).

In other news, some other _____s are up in arms about a noun on the census form.

"“Negro” has remained on the form because the population counters kept getting forms back with the word written in — more than 55,000 in the 2000 Census — even though it was included as one of the selections. That suggested that some blacks still preferred the term and had not noticed it as a third choice."


leedavid 8 years, 5 months ago

Morning Tom,

Juan Williams said that? WOW how funny. I saw him go off over the Reid comment because he said "negro". I'm pretty sure I saw hime do it on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace

jaywalker 8 years, 5 months ago

"Reid out of touch, but right (because he's a Democrat)


50YearResident 8 years, 5 months ago

This is a Leonard Pitt's story I fully agree with, and this is a valid point, "To believe Reid did something wrong in talking about that is to buy the silly contention that talking about race is, of itself, racist". Having said that (talked about it), does it make me a racist?

Kirk Larson 8 years, 5 months ago

As I've said before: An African-American candidate has to be erudite to get elected. A White male candidate can talk like a buck toothed redneck yokel and still get elected. In fact, it's an asset South of the Mason-Dixon.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 5 months ago

Senator Reid was absolutely right. Most of the blacks who have made it have light skin.

equalaccessprivacy 8 years, 5 months ago

It's often considered presumptuous and speaking out of turn to speak another community's truths, even when you are right, no?

leedavid 8 years, 5 months ago

Just think the last time people used the word "negro' in a sentence they might have said other things like this:

'I'll tell you one thing, if things keep going the way they are, it's going to be impossible to buy a week's groceries for $10.00.

'Have you seen the new cars coming out next year? It won't be long before $1, 000.00 will only buy a used one.

'If cigarettes keep going up in price, I'm going to quit. 20 cents a pack is ridiculous.

'Did you hear the post office is thinking about charging 7 cents just to mail a letter

'If they raise the minimum wage to $1.00, nobody will be able to hire outside help at the store.

And to think this guy is heading up our healthcare....that's funny right there.

georgiahawk 8 years, 5 months ago

I love the "if we had done that you would be all over us" arguments! Speculation from victim want-to-be's. Then their examples are akin to not understanding that there is a difference between a 1lb hammer, a 10 lb sledge hammer and a wrecking ball!
Down here in the wonderful south, I never would have dreamed that I would hear the "n" word (not negro) as much as I have. While I hear it some from whites (when blacks cannot hear) I hear it mostly (95% +) from blacks. I have even had one of my employees whom I had just told that I don't like that word to be used at all say "That n** ain't worth a crap, come on, call him what he is, say n with me." My guess is that when blacks call each other n***, that negro from whomever is pretty meaningless. Of course all blacks cannot be put into a single reaction category, but in general, from a distance, not looking at any individuals and not restricting any reaction they might have contrary to what has been said, I believe that.

jafs 8 years, 5 months ago


Interestingly, Ms. King is the only prominent black person who has criticized Reid strongly - the rest seem to understand the context and point of his comment and don't find it offensive.

jaywalker 8 years, 5 months ago

"Of course all blacks cannot be put into a single reaction category, but in general, from a distance, not looking at any individuals and not restricting any reaction they might have contrary to what has been said, I believe that."

That sentence reminds me of Miss South Carolina's ramble. Just sayin'...

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