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The Politics of Dialect and Race as a Social Construct

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am a light-skinned African-American. I was raised in Washington, DC, and my parents are from Harlem. I went to Yale for college and for law school. I am a law professor. I live in Northern New Jersey. What is my dialect?

I have spoken before predominantly African-American audiences in Newark and elsewhere throughout the country and have wondered how I should speak. What sort of cadence? What accent? What dialect?

Should I speak with the musical, inspirational flourishes of the mighty African-American preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., their voices rising like great waves, and crashing down with calls for doing God's work here on earth? Or perhaps in the style of leading African-American politicians of my father's generation, in the great oral tradition, with calm authority and a touch of defiance? Or should I adopt the more modern rhythms found in so many African-American communities today?

Meanwhile, in front of another Newark audience -- my Criminal Procedure class at Seton Hall Law School -- most of my students are white. Each semester, I show Jay-Z's video of his song, 99 Problems, as he raps about getting stopped by cops. I love rap. And Jay-Z is the master. But in class I consciously avoid speaking in his rhythmic lyric. Instead, I hold forth in my "law professor" cadence, discussing the Supreme Court's case law.

Every day, every situation is a little different. But I always want to communicate effectively. So does President Barack Obama. Just listen to tapes of him from different locations across the country, either as a candidate or as President. As we were out on the campaign trail in the primaries, especially when he was trying to introduce himself to the public, he would say that he had a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas, and was raised in Hawaii -- and that explained his accent. But no doubt, when we were in Iowa, he sounded more like a Chicagoan with Kansan roots.In Black churches, his voice rose and fell like a preacher. And in New Hampshire, he maybe sounded a little more like a man who studied at Harvard Law. Why? Because he wanted to communicate. To get through to others. We all do. It is, after all, why we speak in the first place.

All of us do this every day, regardless of who we are or where we stand in society. We routinely modulate our voices and our cadences to suit the sensibilities of the people with whom we are communicating. We do it because it's one of the most effective ways of establishing a common ground, for a richer dialogue.

In the course of my own work in law and politics, I have spoken before endlessly varied audiences. With labor union members, I probably shift my tone and vocabulary in one direction; before seniors, I move another way; before supporters at rallies, there's another voice. I have spoken at political events from New Hampshire across to California, swinging through Iowa on the way back home to Jersey, picking up phrases and intonations along the way. I have been in New Jersey's cities, in countless suburbs, and down the shore. As each of my three children grows, from blank-slate newborns to know-everything teenagers, I continually search for the best way to get through to them. As my hair grays, "Teenage dialect" may be the thorniest communications challenge I've faced.

So it is that the latest commotion about dialects -- the controversy over Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nevada) comments on how President Obama speaks -- reminds me that for African-Americans how we communicate inevitably gets caught up in questions of who we are and what it means to be a person of color in this country.

To many African-Americans, I am "not Black enough" in my speaking style. But on the other hand, for my whole life I have run in many circles where I have been one of a small number of African-Americans. In those settings I have been wary of my perhaps precarious presence and keenly aware of the impact of language. And so I have chosen my words carefully, taking on that very local vernacular -- of an Ivy League School, a federal court, or the United States Senate.

When I worked as General Counsel for Newark Mayor Cory Booker in his 2006 campaign, the long-time incumbent Sharpe James and his supporters attacked the street cred of the young challenger. Booker had grown up in mostly-white suburban New Jersey and was educated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale. In both his losing and winning campaigns, James referred to him as a "faggot white boy;" rumors circulated that Booker was Jewish; and flyers tried to connect him with the KKK and New Jersey's white Republican establishment. On the other hand, James's supporters praised their candidate as "The Real Deal."

Race is a social construct. A story, perhaps apocryphal, recounted by historian Barbara Fields, has it that a white American journalist once asked Papa Doc Duvalier, the ruthless Haitian dictator, what percentage of his country's inhabitants were white.

"Ninety-eight percent," Duvalier replied. Incredulous, the journalist asked again and got the same response. The journalist tried to clarify the matter by asking how Duvalier defined "white." Duvalier flipped the question back to him: "How do you define 'black' in your country?" Anyone with any black blood was considered black. Duvalier nodded and responded: "Well, that's the way we define 'white' in my country."

African-Americans run a spectrum of skin tones, all of which carry their own labels--blue-black, high-yellow, cream-in-your-coffee. It defines us in some ways, and reflects the varying racial mix we find in African-American life. Growing up, I always loved the fact that my grandfather was Jamaican--it gave me another homeland, an island identity. Thanks in large part to my mother's dogged historical research, I also have learned of all kinds of other family roots. My American-born grandfather's parents were in the founding family of Tuskegee University; one great-great grandfather, "Nigger Jack" Bond came to the U.S. from Liverpool England to join in America's war against slavery; other ancestors had an illegal, and therefore covert, relationship (he was white and she was black) which was made possible by a secret door in their home. Somewhere down that long, winding lineage came me and my sister. She, my father, my mother and I are all "light-skinned," but all with different hues.

People still take different cues from varying skin tones, much in the same way they take different cues from various speech patterns. There's little we can do to change our skin tones but modulating how we speak is something we can control. I'm not sure exactly what Harry Reid intended when he said President Obama spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" but it's not an entirely false observation either: the President has found different voices for different audiences and we've all seen him do it. It's not because he's trying to "pass" - to use that timeworn, painful characterization applied to blacks trying to fit in by adopting the mannerisms of the larger white community. It's because he's trying to communicate more effectively. He's trying to build bridges through the magical, unpredictable use of language.

For me, Reid's words made me reflect on another question: what do I call myself? When I was born in 1964, society called me a Negro. Growing up, I was Black (and proud). Now, African-American is the preferred term. Did Reid really use the term "Negro dialect?" Just typing this phrase on my laptop, I feel the absurdity, but however absurd, it's more outdated than anything else. "Harry, Please!!"

Reid's comments may fuel the fire of a still regrettably polarized political environment, but racial identity simply isn't monolithic, and there is some truth in his words -- hopelessly archaic or insensitive as they may be. An open dialogue about the reality behind this episode can help our nation as we struggle to better understand race -- and ourselves -- in America.

Mark C. Alexander, professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law, was Policy Director and Senior Advisor to Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He is working on a book about race, politics and generational change in America.