The Other “N-Word”
Hear that loud squawking noise emanating from the vicinity of Capitol Hill? The feathers are flying in an especially heated dust-up over the latest case of White Politician Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome (WPFIMS).
If you haven’t heard the news, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quoted in a newly published book, Game Change, as having described a certain presidential candidate named Barack Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Of course, Reid was simply telling the truth. Obama is relatively light-skinned (having had a white mother probably helps in that department). And true, he does speak standard non-ghetto English, at least in part because he was raised by a white family with small-town Midwestern roots.
The most curious portion of Reid’s remark, that Obama had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” also rings true: having immersed himself in the culture of Chicago’s African American community as a young adult, Obama can move effortlessly into the distinctive cadences of black preacher-speak when the occasion demands it. (Of course, when you come down to it, there’s no such thing as a “Negro” dialect; African American, yes… Jamaican or Haitian or Trinidadian, definitely. But we’re splitting semantic hairs.)
It also helps to understand the context of Reid’s remarks, which Republican operatives are conveniently ignoring in their collective call for Reid’s resignation. Apparently Reid was impressed by the young senator from Illinois and spoke with enthusiasm about Obama’s prospects as a presidential candidate.
Why would Reid make a point of Obama’s racial palatability to a predominantly white electorate? Remember, we’re talking about a nation that, during the past 220 years, had elected only WASPs, a handful of Irishmen and an occasional Dutchman to the presidency. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a midwesterner of Swiss-German stock, was the most ethnically exotic individual ever to hold the office before Obama. No Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles or even Scandinavians had ever made the cut. It almost goes without saying that, given the narrow historical parameters of presidential ethnicity, white Americans would be more responsive to a “light-skinned” black candidate who sounded like them… as opposed to someone who looked and spoke like, say, James Brown.
Obama has manfully dismissed the incident, and so has Harold Ford, the African-American chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. Ford simply called Reid’s remarks “an unusual set of words,” which was both charitable and on-the-mark.
Of course, “Negro” used to be the standard terminology for someone of sub-Saharan African origin. And it’s instructive to note that the current U.S. census form includes “Negro,” along with “African American” and “black,” as descriptors for individuals of that race. But nobody with any sense or sensitivity uses the term “Negro” these days without irony, any more than we use “Oriental” to describe people of East Asian origin. The terms aren’t intrinsically offensive; they’re simply archaic and borderline-comical, which Reid should have known.
Still, the Democrats’ forgiving response to Reid’s remarks caused Republicans to bristle with accusations of double standards. Well do they remember that former Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, was forced to resign from his post in 2002 for toasting reformed segregationist Strom Thurmond during the latter’s 100th birthday celebration.
Republican party Chairman Michael Steele (an African American) seemed incensed that Reid has been let off the hook so easily by his fellow Democrats. He complained that “the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own… But if it comes from anyone else, it’s racism.”
Lott shouldn’t have been hounded out of office for his innocent remarks, and neither should Reid. In fact, Reid’s gaffe calls to mind the mild uproar caused by a prominent Democrat who described candidate Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
That Democrat’s name was Joe Biden, who, like Harry Reid, is a certified WPFIMS sufferer. As we all know, Obama subsequently hand-picked Biden as his vice president, an office he holds to this day (relatively gaffe-free, we should mention).
The New Moderate can only conclude that, where verbal gaffes are concerned, it’s the sentiment that counts. Harry Reid’s sentiments were above suspicion. That was good enough for Obama, and it should be good enough for the rest of us.