Monday, January 11, 2010

Race after Obama: What did Harry Reid do wrong?

I've been on a politics cleanse, so I almost missed the controversy surrounding Sen. Harry Reid's pronouncements about President Obama's election:

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid apologized on Saturday for saying Barack Obama should seek -- and could win -- the White House because Obama was a
"light skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to
have one."

Now, the use of the word "Negro" is very 1964, but as "N words" go, it's a small offense. I took Reid's comments to mean that Obama is the type of self-identified black man that is acceptable to majority voters. The idea that a biracial, light-brown-skinned man with a flat, Midwestern accent devoid of "ethnic" markers might have an easier time getting elected in America than a dark-brown-skinned man who identifies solely as black, and who possesses a "blaccent"...ought to be recognizable as truth to anyone with half a brain and any knowledge of race in America. So, why did Reid rush to apologize and why did President Obama accept the apology as if one needed to be given?

The controversy surrounding Reid's remarks puts paid to their ultimate truth. In order to be elected in a country whose majority is made uncomfortable by racial and cultural "other," candidate Obama had to diminish those traits in himself. Part of this involved minimizing racism, prejudice and bias during the campaign. While his supporters railed against darkened photos, coded language, hate speech and Geraldine Ferraro, Obama could but earnestly soldier on and pretend that race was barely an issue. No one was ready to listen to racial rabble-rousing--even justified complaining--from a man named Barack Hussein Obama.

I understand why Obama had to take this direction as a candidate. America doesn't like to talk about racial disparities. It is uncomfortable. People of color who suffer racism get extra brownie points. A white friend recently said to me, describing boxer Jack Johnson, who faced tremendous racism during his career: "I hear he was just a good guy. He was the kind of guy that could be called "the N word" and not say anything, just let it roll of his back." Message: Good black people are silent in the face of racism. Barack Obama, if he was to be seen as a "good" guy, could little afford to point out too much bias. I understand this. But I hate what it has done to the discussion of race in America.

Because it won't do for our president to seem too black...because he can't be seen to be "playing the race card" by people for whom any mention of race bias is verboten...we must pretend that we are post-racial. We must adopt a conservative's yardstick for racism. We must ignore countless studies that illustrate just what Harry Reid said and demand he apologize for daring to mention race at all. We must pretend that there is no more need for racial discussion. And, if by accident, we slip and speak some racial truth, we must apologize profusely.

It would help if President Obama, who I know faces another election in 2012, would occasionally drop the consensus building and get real about race. It would be the ultimate irony if by electing the first self-identified black United States president we move racial equality backwards. If having a person of color in power means ignoring racial disparities in favor of post-racial happy talk, that concession is too high a price to pay.


Reads4Pleasure said...

How did you respond to your friend that defined a good guy in such a way? Allowing himself to be called out of name without responding makes him good?

windy city girl said...

The only thing Harry Reid did wrong was speak the truth about how race and ethnicity work in our society. In a country where large numbers have talked themselves into believing racism no longer exists, that is the ultimate sin.

I wish that when people got outraged about this stuff, they examined what was actually said and/or why it offends them. In all the discussions going on about this, people are just reacting in a very knee-jerk fashion, not even examining the implications of what Reid said. I'm no fan of the man, but it seems to me that he was just stating the obvious. The fact that people are going after him for saying what we all know to be true is in itself pretty telling.

Thanks for this great post, Tami!

Tami said...


I pointed out that the idea was preposterous. To make my point, I asked would he have been a "bad guy" if he spoke back to someone who called him the N word. I also pointed out that black people, particularly back then, remained silent because to do otherwise could compromise their safety and livelihood.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I want to echo everything windy city girl said, especially her first paragraph.

"It would be the ultimate irony if by electing the first self-identified black United States president we move racial equality backwards. If having a person of color in power means ignoring racial disparities in favor of post-racial happy talk, that concession is too high a price to pay."

I don't think things can go "backwards", but I hear you on this fear. And yeah, I see a bit of "post-racial happy talk" - or in this case, "post racial verboten topics" - especially in the mainstream. I don't want this either. There are many wonderful authors and bloggers etc. who are bringing the vibrant racial discussion - including yourself - and I hold a lot of hope for that.

My family does the "good guy" thing. My mom likes to tell a story of her friend who would introduce himself with a handshake and a big smile as "Ni**er Jim". While my family would never in anger call someone the N-word - because you know, that's a Racist thing to do, they nevertheless seemed to breathe (internal) sighs of relief when people of color would make sure to have a sense of humor about the whole business (from a white person perspective, could that reasonably be called "knowing one's place"?) In the case of Jim, I think it was so comforting (or something?) to have a black man be all cool in the face of the N-word. It proved he was a good guy with a sense of humor, sure... but it also proved there was no more troubling racial relations frontier left. Everyone was just groovy with one another. Or at least - these are the impressions of my family that I have.

Thank you for another great column, Tami!

Reggie said...

We're all victims of political correctness Tami. Black is a color, African American speaks to heritage and not necessarily race; and Negro is supposed to speak to race. The problem is that in many places in the world Negro means we're back to square one.

The simple mistake that Harry made is that he opened his mouth and said what he and a whole multitude of people in this country believe to be true.

Cindy said...

Once again, great post. Barking at Reid for pointing out the obvious evokes the notion of "color blindness" which so many like to use as proof of not being a racist. Wouldn't you rather I see you for ALL of who you are?

I agree in that pretending color doesn't exist and there is no inherent culture of various groups is a step backward.

Mind you, I don't want to excuse him for what is also apparent ignorance either, but feels like the Limbaugh's have everyone chasing their tail.

jen said...

Well, Tami, I had to come over hear what sense you might make of it all. Reid's comment really upset me. And, then today NPR reminded everyone that Biden said he was clean and articulate. WHAT? I have NEVER described anyone as clean in my life - except my stinky little four year old after rolling around in the mud and finally taking a swim in the tub. Your blog makes us think, and hopefully makes us better people.

avocadoawesome said...

When this made the national news splash, I wondered who would be offended by "light-skinned"? I thought it was a pretty general term describing people of mixed race; but then a person would have to be somewhat educated in race issues to understand that. And "Negro dialect" was simply politically incorrect. The politics of racial language change so quickly, which makes race an even more difficult discussion.

The content of his comment wasn't racist or demeaning at all. I remember endless discussions before the election over whether or not America was "ready" for a black president. Now, the GOP wants to put Reid in time-out for reminding us that race was an enormous issue in the 2008 election.

ladyc said...

Tami, Reid didn't offend me. Why? He spoke the truth. I don't know whether he spoke it directly to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin or what Reid said was repeated to them. I don't trust anything Mark Halperin has to say because he is not an Obama supporter. IMO, Halperin is a shill for the GOP.

Reid HAD to apologize, and Obama HAD to accept his apology. The MSM has blown this matter all out of proportion, but who will call them on it. Ed Schultz lead his show off with the "controversy." I'm still ticked off at Schultz for a remark he made twice in the span of two days. He said the Black Caucus needs to talk to Obama about healthcare reform, because he (Shcultz) believes they (Obama and the Black Caucus) speak the same language. If that isn't a racist remark, I don't know what is.

The so-called progressives make me sick to my stomach. Reid didn't say anything wrong, point blank.

Anonymous said...

Reid is right. People reacted the way they did because it was a truth they don't WANT to accept.

What your friend said was a typical white sentiment. Many of them think POC should remain silent, and docile in the face of blatant disrespect and sometimes violence. Because if we don't, it forces them to confront their own racism and question themselves; which is something many white people don't do in America or only do superficially.

Hypocritically, when injustices happen to them they feel they have every right to speak up.

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Anonymous said...

Very smart post. Obama is a very smart man - he's not going to address race unless forced to - and this, and comments like it, may just be the ticket.

MomTFH said...

The same people who were outraged by Harry Reid's comment were not equally outraged by worse comments and other displays of racism by people who are more in line with their political philosophies (liek Glenn Beck).

As for suffering racism silently, I have heard that is why Jackie Robinson was picked to initiate the desegregation of major league baseball. There were other, better players in the negro league, but he had the right "temperament". Meaning, he would be silent in the face of horrid racism, including being spit on, booed at and called the "N" word.


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