Was Reid Wrong?

(Actual Post Date 1/20/10)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently made some unsettling remarks to a book publisher about race, speech patterns  and Obama’s increased Presidential viability due to his “light” skin tone.     The authors quote Reid as saying privately that Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”  For many African-Americans these are very sensitive topics, especially the issue of skin tone, but it is also a topic that is very familiar to the African-American community.    For centuries, black people in America have had to deal with the politics of skin tone, even within our own communities.  The issue of skin tone and its’ influence upon race has been studied and written about for years, and yet the debate continues about the significance of “light skinned” versus “dark skinned” and its’ sociological consequences.  

Reid also claims that Obama’s speaking patterns, devoid of “Negro dialect”, also make him a much more viable Presidential candidate.   This is also a controversial issue within the black community, which has a history of slang talk dating back to slavery, as a means of covert communication from their enslavers.   However, the evolution of slang and the “Negro dialect” as Reid coined it, has been universally accepted into the American dialogue, with words and phrases such as “Cool, What’s Up? What’s Happening? Jive Talk and Hip or Bad” to name a few.   There was once a time in American history, when only African-Americans uttered these “cool” colloquialisms, which may be surprising to many young people.  But as African-Americans began to become more of a part of mainstream America, the catchy dialogue that originated in Harlem jazz clubs and back alley parlors slowly became accepted by white Americans partially due to the young white patrons of these establishments, who tried to mimic the cool, hip swagger embodied by their favorite musicians.

When Reid’s statements were revealed, my initial reaction like many people of color, was that his remarks were racist and insensitive, but then I began to think objectively about the nature of his comments and the context with which they were delivered.   First of all Harry Reid, a 70 year old white man, born and raised in Nevada, a state which had its’ share of discrimination, but was not a political hotbed for civil rights, doesn’t have the racist pedigree of some of his congressional southern colleagues who were staunch segregationists.   Reid also appeared along with Senators Sam Brownback and Barack Obama in the 2007 documentary film Sand and Sorrow, which details the genocide in Sudan.  He also recently compared the opposition to healthcare reform to those who opposed the abolition of slavery in the 1800’s.  While all of this certainly doesn’t exonerate Reid from being a racist, it certainly doesn’t necessarily characterize him as a racist either.  Reid who probably grew up accustom to referring to black people as Negros, which was not uncommon for someone his age, reverted back to a term that he was familiar with in describing the “Negro dialect”.  The term Negro is in fact still utilized today by the UNCF, The United Negro College Fund,  so I will assume that Reid simply had a “senior moment” and meant no disrespect when he used the term.  

The most troubling part about Reid’s statement was that he blithely perpetuated stereotypes about African-Americans, which are predicated upon esoteric features such as skin tone and speech patterns.   Reid also inadvertently revealed his predilection for African-Americans of lighter skin tone and those who use proper grammar, without slang, if they so choose.  The problem with his statement is that he places an inordinate amount of attention upon Obama’s skin tone and speech pattern, instead of as Martin Luther King Jr. proposed, judging a man “Based on the content of his character.”   Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most influential and articulate men in history, and he was a man of brown skin tone, darker than Obama, and would not have been considered “light skinned” by any means.   King gained notoriety for his eloquent speeches and his passion for civil rights, but according to Reid’s presumption on race, King  would have been more acceptable, if he were light skinned, which is obviously ludicrous.

The real issue is that we live in a society where politicians who seek to become President, have to possess a rock star type of appeal in order to influence the masses, because most Americans are too inundated with making a living or are too apathetic to research the issues and make informed decisions about who should be their leaders.  

Obama garnered attention, much the same way MLK did, with passionate, eloquent speeches that resonated with people of all color and races.   Obama’s skin tone may be considered light skinned, but I doubt that most African-American voters supported him because of his skin tone.   Apparently, Reid felt that this would be a factor with white voters, who if given a choice of light and dark skinned black candidates, would undoubtedly choose the light skin candidate.   This is a universal conundrum that can be found in just about every society of the world, especially in Asian countries, like China, Korea and India, who are not very shy about voicing their preference for celebrities and leaders of lighter skin tone.  In many Asian countries, and Asian communities throughout the United States, Asians wear long sleeves and big brimmed visors to keep their skin from getting dark, as dark skin is considered to be of lower class and connotes a working class association.

The ability to speak well is considered by many to be a skill, and for some, like Obama, perhaps a gift.  But the ability to articulate and use proper grammar is not a mutually exclusive trait or attribute of a particular race, its’ more of a reflection of education and parenting.   Many professional African-Americans are very aware that they’re being judged not only by their skin color, but also by their communication skills.   

We know that reliance upon superficial attributes such as skin tone, weight, height, etc., really has no bearing upon a person’s character, their personality or their ability to succeed, as Oprah Winfrey once famously quipped, “My personality is not in my thighs”.    There are numerous examples of brown or dark skinned people who have achieved extraordinary success in our lifetime and yet we still continue to focus upon the color of one’s skin as the barometer by which we determine their acceptability.    Perhaps this is where Reid and others of like mind, have lost focus of the dream.  The dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had that we “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Despite electing our first African-American President, apparently there’s still a lot of work left to be done to realize the true meaning of Dr. King’s dream.  

 Barrington Ross


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