On Writing the Word 'Negro': Defending Halperin and Heilemann

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Honest-to-God initial reaction to the furor over Harry Reid's comments: 'And?'

I'm working on a book about RFK in the Senate, and I have to admit that with my feet in 2010 and my head in 1966, I've become a little desensitized to the word 'Negro.' At first, I thought the meaning of Reid's comments -- about Obama's dialect and skintone -- was the controversial part. Because I see the word 'Negro' every day, probably dozens of times on average. Search it in the New York Times' online archive from January 1 to December 31, 1966, and you'll get 4,265 articles (albeit, one of those stories is headlined: "Teacher Opposes The Term 'Negro'").

In fact, early this morning I was reading a dispatch from Gadsen, Alabama, April 1966. Governor George Wallace was on the campaign trail. The Times reporter notes, "the governor did not use the word segregation once during his speech and carefully pronounced the word Negro.'"

The reporter doesn't write it, but he was referring to the way white Southern politicians reverted to calling blacks, 'Nigras,' which was considered a codeword for worse. Kind of the way 'Negro' is considered today.

To those who cry foul at what Reid said, arguing that a Republican could not get away with uttering that word or its sentiment: you're right. I don't think a person with even a scintilla of racism in their background or voting record could get away with it. It was extremely impolitic at best. And though the word appears in my writing, I would never dare to say it in a twenty-first century conversation.

(I also happen to think that what Trent Lott said in 2002 was much, much worse: that America "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" if it elected a segregationist president in 1948. Really? Imagine the Montgomery Bus Boycott under a segregationist-appointed Justice Department? Under a segregationist-appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice?)

I've interviewed a lot of old DC politicos for the book I'm writing. Sometimes, they use the word 'Negro' in conversation, as in "The Negroes were saying..." or "was with a Negro preacher" and so on. They'll use words like 'black' and 'African American,' too, but maybe it's something about the reminiscing -- they occasionally say 'Negro.'... Not all of them do this, but more than one have.

Maybe it has to do with me being a green-eyed white boy. Maybe they wouldn't say such a thing if I wasn't. Because though I've heard old black men (whose histories I don't know) use the term, all the men I'm talking about are white. Both Christian and Jewish. Some are of Harry Reid's generation, some are older.

And yes, it was somewhat of a shock to my young ears to hear someone casually use a long outdated term. But I knew these men are the furthest thing from racists. These are men who were on the vanguard of the civil rights movement when it was quite literally deadly to be so. I completely understood their meaning 'black' or 'African American' and not the more nefarious interpretation. I would never think to quote them in a way that might make them seem racist.

Then again, none of these men are players in the political game, let alone at the stratospheric level Harry Reid is.

The impact of publishing this quote as-said might cost Reid his job, which is the kind of trophy every journalist wants for his or her mantle, whether they admit it or not. As someone who isn't even published, I have even less than zero standing to begrudge Halperin and Heilemann for using Reid's exact wording. And with the pressures of the industry, I know how hard it would be to pass up on such a bombshell. Though Halperin said on ABC this morning, they were "trying to write a book of history," not to bring down Reid.

Well, it's possible they've made a bit of history themselves.