Over the weekend, a political firestorm erupted over comments made by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over a statement he once made about President Barack Obama, reported by John Heilmann and Mark Helperin in their new book, Game Change:
"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,' " Halperin and Heilemann say.
Reid's use of the term "Negro dialect" is uncomfortable because the term is archaic and recalls a time when black people were legally denied equal treatment under law, but the sentiment that being black and light-skinned confers its own kind of privilege is so uncontroversial among black people that it's banal. Code-switching -- changing one's speech based on racial or class context -- is an equally mundane phenomenon.
At the same time, there are some important questions here: At what point does awareness of other people's racism based on skin tone alter people's actions to the point where they're making decisions based on skin tone in anticipation of the decisions others will make? Would Reid have been justified in not supporting Obama if Obama were dark-skinned or not biracial because he thought whites might reject him? How would that have been different than simply declining to support Obama out of racism or colorism? How often does this ostensibly non-political calculation cause someone to be denied a job or opportunity just because they happen to be black or dark skinned?
The raw political calculation Reid made here was also one Americans of all races were making. I always knew that someday it would be embarrassing that the press spent 2007 and 2008 hosting panels of white people discussing the political implications of Obama's racial authenticity -- or lack thereof -- but I never imagined that we'd all decide to pretend it never happened.
The GOP has spent considerable effort trying to equate Reid's remarks with those made by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002, when Lott spoke fondly of the segregationist presidential run of Sen. Strom Thurmond. This is absurd: Lott was expressing nostalgic support for the preservation of state-sponsored apartheid, while Reid was making a raw political calculation about what role white views on race would or would not play in Obama's candidacy. While Reid's language was offensive, his comments indicate an awareness of lingering American racism. Lott's instead lamented the loss of a time when racism was enshrined in law. They aren't remotely comparable.
There's nothing partisan about racism, it's not as though Democrats or liberals are immune by definition. But what disturbs me about the Republican reaction -- beyond the fact that they spent Obama's first year accusing him of instituting "reparations" for slavery and denying white men their birthright on the Supreme Court -- is that it allows the GOP to take offense at the suggestion that racism is still a factor in American life while ostensibly expressing disapproval of anti-black racism. The point here is to imply that any discussion of how race or light-skinned privilege might affect one's chances at success today are out of bounds, which ultimately makes it easier for such things to persist and for legal safeguards against discrimination to be dismantled.
Meanwhile, there's something terribly ironic about Michael Steele calling for Reid to resign. Aside from Steele's own penchant for dropping racial slurs, Steele's first year as RNC Chairman has been marred by his clownish attempts to affect black authenticity. Now he has to pretend such things are irrelevant to American politics.
-- A. Serwer
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