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.”
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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 and 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.
Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.