Harry Reid Has No Reason to Apologize

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) simply told the truth, in my view. I don’t see what he has to apologize for.

According to the Washington Post, the book Game Change states that when assessing the strengths of then candidate Barack Obama in 2008, Reid said that he “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’. ” There is nothing offensive or even controversial here.

It seems that some people are upset because they have deluded themselves into thinking that America is a post-racial society. Reid’s remarks show an awareness that blackness poses challenges for success with the broad American electorate.

Recent research reported on in Newsweek’s The Gaggle blog, supports Harry Reid. Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago told Newsweek:
“There’s a long history in Western society of associating lightness with good and darkness with bad. Throughout history, throughout literature, et cetera. And we know now that these associations sometimes apply to the color of a person’s skin, and in addition to associating goodness with white, there’s some recent research in implicit attitudes suggesting that at an unconscious level people have a strong tendency to associate America with white.”
Caruso did research which found that research “participants who’d seen a darkened photo [of a candidate] just a few minutes earlier reported that they were less likely to vote for the candidate than those who’d seen the lightened photo.” Thus, based on Caruso’s research, Reid is correct to think that voters would be more favorably disposed to a light-skinned black candidate than a dark-skinned one.

The term “Negro” is old-fashioned, but since Reid is, well, not young, I don’t find anything offensive about his use of it. I’m not sure that the use of idioms and accents associated with blacks should be called a “dialect,” but Reid’s use of word is appropriate according to Dictionary.com. So, I cannot find any fault here either.

I am not aware of any research on people’s attitudes or voting behavior and “Negro dialects.” (This does not mean that there is none, just that I’m not currently aware of any.) But given the existence of anti-black attitudes in American society, it is not much of a stretch to assume that speech characteristics common to blacks would also be subject to negative stigma. This is not a radical idea if one knows that we do not live in a colorblind society. I would bet that Reid is correct on his “Negro dialect” opinion also.

All of this amounts to acknowledgment that black candidates for elected office can have challenges that white candidates do not. The whiter they are in appearance the better. But, of course, most blacks do not look white. George W. Bush and other white candidates might be able to deviate wildly from the Standard American dialect, but black candidates who wish to be elected should stick to Standard American as much as possible, especially when they are appearing before nonblack audiences.

Representative James E. Clyburn (D-SC) said it well when he told the New York Times: “I am one of those who wish to one day live in a color-blind nation. But the fact is that none of us do today.”

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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