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The Other “N-Word”

January 11, 2010

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.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 4:44 pm

    True. I think his words are more a glimpse into a bygone era than true racism. While the conext may have been glowing praise, it speaks to how institutionalized racism was prevalent, in one form or another, back in the time he grew up in.

    While this highlights some of the overly touchy p.c. culture we live in today, at the same time he should have been aware of how to choose is words more carefull.

    • January 11, 2010 9:49 pm

      Collin: I think the Republicans were trying to leverage PC outrage to score points against Reid and the Democrat leadership. You’re right that our culture is overly touchy (especially on race), and you’re also right that Reid, as a public figure, should know better than to speak so candidly about sensitive racial issues. A key point of Reid’s commentary, though, was that even today the American electorate would have an easier time voting for a light-skinned black who speaks standard, non-ghetto English. Several years ago, Colin Powell made the same point to explain his own popularity with whites.

  2. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 11, 2010 8:22 pm

    Whach U be sayin’ ’bout a “negro” dial-echt nigga?! (Lefty’s one black friend) Reid isn’t a racist, just mildly (I almost said moderatly) incompetent. Words aren’t racist, as such, it depends on the intent behind them. He shouldn’t resign over this, although considering that he’s going to be voted out anyway, it might save him some time. (and leave the Dems high and dry) Anyway, who are the Republicans to call for a progressive to leave because of racism? They ignore racist teabaggers, but the people who actually try to help stop (if misguidedly) racism are given no leeway. Republicans now own hypocrisy. (or a second helping of it…)

    • January 11, 2010 9:57 pm

      TK: Oh, tell me about the Republicans’ hypocrisy. The whole right-wing “birther” movement was based on white hysteria over a black president (although, to be fair, it didn’t gain much support from mainstream Republican politicians). And of course the GOP took Reid’s remarks entirely out of context: he was explaining, with much enthusiasm, why Obama would make an electable presidential candidate. It’s sad that white politicians can’t speak openly and honestly about race without being crucified for it.

      • Taliesin Knol permalink
        January 12, 2010 12:57 am

        And by other white politicians no less.

  3. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 12, 2010 1:00 am

    Also, randomly, why is my picture pink? and how can I change it? I’m not comfortable enough in my masculinity to “wear” pink, and I’m rather unfond of it as a color…

    • January 12, 2010 10:39 am

      The pink thing was just the luck of the draw, TK. If you’d rather upload a photo or avatar, be my guest. You’ll have to access your account on WordPress and take it from there.

  4. Priscilla permalink
    January 12, 2010 1:05 pm

    The game is played this way: A) Politician with FIMS makes an insensitive, disrespectful or even outright racist remark B) Politician issues mea culpa and grovels before prominent liberal black politicians for forgiveness C) If politician is a Democrat, s/he is forgiven D) If politician is a Republican, a scalp is demanded.

    This whole thing is the playing out of a true farce…for what it’s worth, I don’t think that Reid’s remarks were racist – he was merely complimenting Obama’s political gifts. But it wouldn’t have made much difference even if his remark was racist – in the past, he has made denigrating remarks about Clarence Thomas, which could be branded as racist well, but since Thomas is conservative, they’ve attracted no attention or pc outrage.

    I thought I read somewhere that electing Obama was going to end this nonsense……..

    • January 12, 2010 2:00 pm

      Priscilla: You might be even more of a cynic than I am! But of course you’re right: a conservative would have been crucified for uttering the same statement as Reid. That’s partly because liberal politicians have a certain built-in “street cred” with the black community that conservatives don’t. But it’s still a double standard.

      In general, I think this country has gone over-the-top with regard to racial sensitivities. The word “Negro” really shouldn’t be considered a slur — although, as I said, Reid should have known better. And of course racial commentary is still a one-way street: “protected” minorities are free to assail whites with impunity, but whites still have to bite their tongues, use PC language and walk the thin line. Maybe the rules will change when whites become a minority group, but somehow I doubt it.

  5. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 12, 2010 1:18 pm

    The scalps are demanded of republican politicians because when they apologize, nobody believes them. It takes credibility, which is absent in the party of NO, Birthers, Teabaggers, and Glenn Beck/Limbaugh.

    • January 12, 2010 2:08 pm

      This ties in with my comment on Priscilla’s post — that Democrats have more “street cred” when it comes to racial matters. But it’s not as if there are no racist Democrats or Republican champions of black people; someone’s party affiliation shouldn’t automatically categorize him as a racist or non-racist… though I have my suspicions about Rush Limbaugh.

  6. Priscilla permalink
    January 13, 2010 11:02 am

    Well, here is the thing – if the black community is going to reflexively back Democrats and oppose Republicans, based purely on the false stereotype that Republicans are racist, then neither party will need to address the real needs of the community at all! In other words, the Dems can lie with impunity, because they know that blacks will vote for them no matter what they do, and Republican politicians will waste little time trying to address the concerns of a group that refuses to support them under any circumstances. In essence, the African-American community disenfranchises itself through its own bias, which is ironic, to say the least.

    Remember, the Dem majority leader as recently as 1989 was once Exalted Cyclops of the KKK , and once wrote:
    “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side… Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

    I mean, now we’re talkin’ racism, guys! But he did apologize.

    And, yes, Rick, I am definitely a cynic, but an optimistic one 😉

    • January 13, 2010 1:20 pm

      Priscilla: Wow, there’s a quote worthy of Jefferson Davis (although I guess he wouldn’t have minded seeing Old Glory trampled in the dirt). That wasn’t Senator Byrd by any chance, was it?

      Good point about the blind loyalty of blacks toward Democrats. Actually, Nixon did more for blacks than either Carter or Clinton, both of whom probably like to think of themselves as honorary African Americans. But on the whole, you’re right: why would Republicans court favor with blacks when they know in advance that the community’s votes will be going to their Democratic rivals?

      And yes, cynicism and optimism aren’t mutually exclusive. I still hope for the best even though I’m accustomed to the worst.

    • January 13, 2010 6:48 pm

      I don’t see blacks as blindly loyal to the ALL of the Democratic party, moreso the “economic/reperation ” fringe. Black political figures are often vehemently anti-gay and immigration, which is more in tune with the conservtive social agenda. As to the Reoublicans not trying to reach “out” to the black community, remember Unlce Steele? Overall the black minority is more supportive of social conservatism, and liberal economics, because they tend to be poorer, uneducated, and religous. Just like lots of poor whites… The big Black supporters of the democratic party tend to be wealthy, middle class blacks, with white collar jobs, (White collar jobs virtually garunteed to them by EEO) like most white liberals. The Klansman, I did not know about, (I wonder why nobody talks about THAT one…) Was he by any chance a Southerner? Most politicians in the South had to be Klan-bangers to get elected until fairly recently, and that happens to be where most Republican support is from. Democrat racists aren’t unheard of, but are by far less common than Republicans, particularly now. 1989 was 21 years ago, and times change. Although slowly for most, and glacially for the Republican party, Which I seem to recall as having KKK members among its ranks as long ago as, oh, 2006. (a wizard, or some nonsense?) Besides which, anyone who isn’t following the extreme end of party policy is getting axed these days, so I’d be more worried about frothing at the mouth reperationists than racists (There’s a difference?) in the Democratic party.

      • January 13, 2010 6:49 pm

        Still pink, damn…

      • January 14, 2010 4:08 pm

        TK: You raised an important point about the core beliefs of the black community: that they tend to be left of center on economic issues and right of center on moral and religious grounds. So why don’t more blacks identify with the Republicans? Why don’t they vote like poor whites?

        I think it’s a matter of successful branding. For better or worse, the Democrats enjoy a pro-black reputation: think of the Kennedys and Obama and the Civil Rights movement; look at all the cool celebrities who align themselves with the Democrats. Meanwhile, the Republicans still reek of banks, country clubs and Bible Belt bigots, at least in the minds of most blacks. But it’s intriguing that blacks really have more in common with poor white conservatives than with snooty San Francisco liberals.

        Maybe the alliances will shift if a populist movement gets going in the U.S. When you think about it, why would poor whites vote Republican anyway? They’re thinking more about moral values than economics when they vote; blacks are probably doing just the opposite.

  7. Priscilla permalink
    January 14, 2010 5:44 pm

    Interesting that the Democrats get credit for the civil rights movement, when, in fact, it was the Republicans who overwhelmingly supported the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 and were responsible for their passage. The aforementioned Robert Byrd, (aka Exalted Cyclops), led an unsuccessful filibuster against the ’64 bill. Senator Al Gore, Sr. was another fierce opponent. Most surprisingly of all, JFK, as a senator, voted against the ’57 bill. It was his bother, Bobby, who later saw the PR and political value in arranging MLK’s release from jail a few years later, linking the Kennedy’s and the King’s together (King, himself, like most black leaders of the time, was a Republican) and changing the view of the Democrat Party as the party of segregationists.

    When I used to teach history, I would go over this, and, yet, on tests, my students would STILL say that the Democrats were responsible for passing the Civil Rights laws.

    Anyway, I’m fascinated by the reasons why people vote the way they do ……I have voted for many Democrats and, more recently, switched to mostly Republicans, although my social/cultural issue views have remained the same, for the most part. I vote primarily on the basis of economic policy and national security issues. My closest friend, on the other hand, says she would never vote for any candidate who was not pro-choice, no matter how much she agreed with him/her on other issues. That seems crazy to me, but she’s a very smart woman……..go figure.

    • January 14, 2010 8:38 pm

      Priscilla: There was a seismic shift in 1964, when Johnson threw his weight behind the Civil Rights Act. (Some clairvoyant politician warned LBJ that if he pushed that bill through Congress, the Democrats would lose the South for at least a generation.) I’ve always associated the ’64 bill with the Democrats (except in the South) because of LBJ. I remember being surprised when the Deep South, which had always voted Democrat, became solid Goldwater territory in the 1964 election. I’m sure it was because of the Civil Rights Act.

      By the way, I didn’t even know about the ’57 Civil Rights bill. I’ll have to look up that one and learn about it.

      It’s almost shocking to think of Martin Luther King as a Republican. (I can’t imagine him marching arm in arm with Ike or Nixon.) Maybe he started out that way and switched over in the early ’60s. Blacks used to vote Republican because it was the party of Lincoln, and well, because of all those racist Dixie Democrat politicians. I don’t know if they started going Democrat under JFK (who was really just a moderate on civil rights but seemed outwardly sympathetic) or during LBJ’s activist first year in office. But by the 1964 election it’s safe to say they were Democrats.

      P.S. I had a feeling that stirring racist diatribe came from Byrd. He can really turn on the eloquence for a cause he believes in, the old cyclops!

  8. Priscilla permalink
    January 15, 2010 11:04 am

    All true….but the fact remains that, despite Johnson’s push, Republicans backed the bill in far greater proportion that the Dems – and the GOP was the minority party at the time – and the bill would never have become law (at least under Johnson) without GOP support.

    My point is not to extol the GOP – but to make the observation that perception and stereotype is not necessarily reality, and I think that the demonization, without justification, of any political party is a dangerous thing.

  9. valdobiade permalink
    January 15, 2010 3:29 pm

    You are debating which party actually helped blacks more. What if Republicans help African-Americans that are maximum 25% African and 70% American?
    Obama seems to be70% African and 30% American, which Republicans still cannot swallow.
    But in the end, it seems that all that talking about colors, does not help fighting racism.
    If, for the next presidential candidacy you have for Republicans: Steele, Limbaugh and Palin – who would be GOP favorite and why?
    And now for Democrats would be Obama, H.Clinton and another white male candidate – who would be Dems favorite and why?

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