Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to backpedal and apologize very quickly for a private conversation he had with Barack Obama during Obama's presidential campaign. In the discussion, Reid stated that Obama could be a successful candidate because he is "light skinned" and that he speaks with "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Two journalists, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, made this assertion in a book to be released next Tuesday.
"He [Reid] 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," they write.
Here is what Senator Reid had to say: "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words," Reid said in a statement to CNN. "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans for my improper comments. "I was a proud and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama during the campaign and have worked as hard as I can to advance President Obama's legislative agenda."
When it comes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his comments, the bottom line is this:
1) Reid's comments reflect the kind of insulting, subtle and patronizing racism that African Americans sometimes face from well-intended liberals. I admire Harry Reid for all that he's overcome in his life (his life story is quite compelling), but I doubt that he would have the same respect for me that I have for him. His decision to "help" people of color is similar to the commitment that the Humane Society has toward helping animals: You might really want to protect dogs, but you don't want them eating at the dinner table. The idea that he would congratulate Obama for being less black sends a clear signal that he and other Americans would support Obama IN SPITE of his blackness, as if being "too black" were a liability that Obama had been able to overcome. Therefore, the whiter you are, the better you are. That is White Supremacy 101.
2) Harry Reid's reference to skin complexion is painfully accurate: Last week, when I wrote a piece comparing Harold Ford Jr. to Barack Obama, some were surprised that I made reference to both of them having light-skin, and my reference to the fact that Ford's light skin likely serves as a cue for many Democrats to support him. But the truth is that for the past 400 years, light-skinned blacks have been preferable to darker skinned African Americans in almost every walk of life, from beauty to employment to politics. In fact, I remember my grandmother taking pride in the fact that all of her kids were "light skinned-ed," and got jobs that the other black people couldn't get. In that regard, Reid was simply pointing out the obvious and reminding us that we are a long way from any kind of "post-racial America."
3) The Republicans are going to eat Harry Reid alive over this: One interesting thing about the Rush Limbaughs of the world is that they represent the dirt which lies in the psyches of most Americans. It doesn't mean that every American wants to think like Limbaugh. It means that many of them have a part of themselves that think like Limbaugh. Harry Reid's unfortunate "negro dialect" remarks will lead to Bill O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh and other members of the "axis of ignorance" to argue that their racism isn't so bad because Democrats like Harry Reid are equally racist. I do not agree with that assertion. Reid's remarks do not necessarily imply that he is racist. Rather, they reflect the fact that politicians are bell weathers for public opinion and that he is well aware that in a racially imbalanced society, being black is simply unpopular. His words are also telling in the sense that he is making it clear that if Barack Obama were a dark-skinned black man who spoke with a "negro dialect," he would have been deemed unworthy of being President of the United States. This reminds us of what millions of African Americans experience in the workplace from organizations that don't truly value or understand diversity. In many of these places, that which is different is considered inferior (i.e. as a black scholar, I've noticed that scholarly work that references the black community is not valued by colleagues - hence, outstanding scholars like Cornel West are told by then Harvard President Lawrence Summers that they are not good enough to be on the faculty).
4) "Negro dialect"? Are you kidding me? In light of the recent push to get the word "negro" off the next Census form, it's shocking that leaders in the Senate still use such terminology. Given that we are approaching Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday and Black History Month, it is my greatest hope that we don't just let this incident slip under the table. It's time to talk about race and lay it all out there....even if you speak with a "negro dialect" and don't have light enough skin. We are all Americans, and all opinions should be respected.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.