Op-ed submission by Project 21
Bravo for President Obama for shunning the race card.
Many have condemned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for the revelation that he marveled at Obama’s light skin and lack of a “Negro dialect” back in 2008. Obama took the high road. He immediately forgave Reid.
Why should Obama be offended? He is well-spoken. He is light-skinned. And, by now, he is undoubtedly thick-skinned.
But, no matter how kind and gracious it is to forgive Reid for his “poor choice of words,” one should be mindful of the sort of character revealed by them. It’s not what Reid said about Obama, his coloring or his dialect as much as how Reid’s comments relate to the dignity and the integrity of black Americans as a whole.
What’s troubling is that Reid seems to have thought then-senator Obama would only be successful because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Surely, Reid must know most blacks are now repulsed by the term Negro. It’s primitive and offensive. He certainly seemed to understand this in October of 2008 when he scolded Las Vegas talk show host Casey Hendrickson for making it racial to link, Obama and disgraced former Fannie Mae executive Franklin Raines.
In rebutting any relationship between the presidential candidate and the former Clinton Administration cabinet member, Reid said, “The only connection… is they both are African-American, other than that there is nothing.” Raines, by the way, is fairly light-skinned, too.
Why did Reid use African-American and not Negro? He obviously didn’t use Negro in public for the same reason Michelle Kwan would never be called Oriental, George Takei isn’t a Jap and Joe Lieberman is never referred to as a Jew. Reid knows that identifying with certain markers can underscore and imply much more than a person’s ethnicity and character.
Though still accepted by some blacks, Negro was used at an ugly and divisive time in our nation’s history. Negro is old school – linked to a world hostile towards blacks. Negroes were second-class citizens, largely undereducated and vastly oppressed. Harry Reid seems to understand this, and therefore should know better than to use the word Negro – unless he really means it.
And what is this “Negro dialect” Reid speaks of? It is a dialect of an oppressed and uneducated people. It is a dialect of suffering and struggle. It is a dialect that Obama can apparently turn on and off like a faucet, depending on his audience.
These incidents indicate Reid understands when and where to use racially titillating lingo. Thus, in the company of friends, Obama and black Americans can be called Negroes. Publicly, blacks are elevated to the gentrified African-Americans.
“Why, thankya good-suh massa, Reid.”
As far as Reid’s implication that it would be important for a successful black presidential candidate to speak properly, he makes a valid point. Blacks would be remiss to support an inarticulate representative of their race. What hurts is that Reid suggests there are times when speaking with a Negro dialect – as only a true Negro would – might be useful.
In all the ways Reid could have complimented Obama, he chose to look beyond the future president’s character and focused on divisive, archaic stereotypes. Reid had a “poor choice of words,” but it was a lack of words that he didn’t use in defining Obama that is troubling. Reid apparently never mentioned character, experience, wisdom or intelligence – instead fixating on a non-Negro dialect and the hue of his skin.
Someone recently reminded me of an old quote from my grandmother that is perfect for Reid’s behavior: “A new broom knows how to clean up the mess; an old broom knows where to find the dirt.”
“Yessuh, massa Reid, you an ol’, duhty broom!”
Lisa Fritsch is a member of the national advisory council for the Project 21 black leadership network and a writer and radio talk show host in Austin, Texas.