Loss for Words: Reid, Obama and Semantic Silliness on Race

By Michelle Chen Jan 12, 2010

The 24-hour news cycle is still ravishing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s fumbling words on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, skin tone, and lack of "Negro dialect." And as usual, all this analysis just leaves us more confused about what we’re talking about and why. The quote in question was unearthed from "Game Change," an inside-baseball account of the 2008 presidential race:

"[Reid’s] encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination."

The quote dredges up some classic post-racial imponderables: 1) Did Reid degrade Obama on the basis of race, or, as Omar Wasow contended on TheRoot.com, merely offer an assessment of how the electorate might? and 2)a) Did he make a correct statement but say it the wrong way, and 2)b) Was he just flat-out wrong, end-of-discussion? Unfortunately, the punditry tends not to separate the substance behind the politician’s words from the posturing and code undergirding them. So the crux of Reid’s gaffe seems to be an utter failure to understand that words matter, whether your message contains a kernel of truth or not. Joan Walsh at Salon is agnostic on Reid’s statement, arguing that an a priori dismissal of Reid’s words does little to advance the debate needed to expand racial consciousness in the supposedly enlightened (or delusional) Obama era:

If we’re ever going to have our long-delayed conversation about race, white people are going to have to be able to participate even on issues that black people have considered their own. I can’t count the number of conversations I had in 2008, with savvy political observers of every race, talking about the advantages of Obama being light-skinned and biracial. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s coincidence that our first black president is a biracial man who came from Hawaii by way of Harvard (with a little political rough and tumble in Chicago)? If my thinking that means I can’t be Senate majority leader … well, that’s OK. I didn’t want that job anyway…. Harry Reid expressed his thoughts inelegantly, he understands that now, and perhaps we’ll retire the term, and the idea of, "Negro dialect." But if progressive racial-justice Democrats don’t think politicians of every race size up the field in terms of competitive advantage — and sadly, even today, accord advantage to African-Americans who put white folks at ease, speak "white" or "standard" English, and even, yes, look "less non-white" — we’re kidding ourselves.

While Walsh sees a contradiction, even a double-standard, in discussions on race among Blacks versus whites, RNC Chair Michael Steele (who’s been known to suffer from verbal incontinence himself) seized on Reid’s blooper to accuse the Democrats of hypocrisy when playing the race card: Neither Steele nor Walsh speak directly to the cultural and political flashpoints surrounding race and language in communities of color–that is, why it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and yes, who’s doing the talking, that determines how different groups will read your message. Ironically, that reality is what Reid was trying to articulate from the outset, albeit with telling clumsiness. Perhaps he was underestimating the electorate’s political sophistication and overestimating his own. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic criticizes the comparison between the Senator’s remark and the overt bigotry of Sen. Trent Lott:

I think you can grant that, in this era, the term "Negro dialect" is racially insensitive and embarrassing. That said, the fair-mind listener understands the argument–Barack Obama’s complexion and his ability to code-switch is an asset. You can quibble about the "light skin" part, but forget running for president, code-switching is the standard M.O. for any African American with middle class aspirations. But there’s no such defense for Trent Lott. Lott celebrated apartheid Mississippi’s support of Strom Thurmond, and then said that had Thurmond won, "we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.” Strom Thurmond run for president, specifically because he opposed Harry Truman’s efforts at integration. This is not mere conjecture–nearly half of Thurmond’s platform was dedicated to preserving segregation. The Dixiecrat slogan was "Segregation Forever!" (Exclamation point, theirs.) Trent Lott’s wasn’t forced to resign because he said something "racially insensitive." He was forced to resign because he offered tacit endorsement of white supremacy–frequently.

If there’s a double-standard at work here, it lies in society’s double-edged sensitization toward race in the public discourse: public figures remain neurotically fixated on the tokens of "diversity," but when they’re called to reflect on how race is lived by others–and to work through their own blindspots instead of retreating to simple cynicism or wishful thinking–they’re tongue-tied. Image: Watson/Getty