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.


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