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

Harry Reid Was (Mostly) Right... Until Now

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So, another political heavyweight - this time Nevada senator and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - runs aground on the shoals of race. Here's the money quote from the recently released book on the 2008 presidential campaign by Time Magazine's Mark Halperin and New York Magazine's John Heilemann:

"He (Reid) was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and 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,' as he later put it privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination."

A few takes.

For many Americans the word "Negro," used as a reference to black Americans, with the exception of the word used in a few contexts (the United Negro College Fund, "negro spirituals), harkens back to the long era of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow. As such, it's not only an obviously anachronistic term, but one generally considered offensive. The use of a term, a term that's been painfully out of style for four decades, especially by a powerful 70 year-old white guy, even in private, "off-the-record" remarks, was bound to cast suspicion on any other observations the Senator offered. Throw in the ironclad guarantee of the kind of opportunistic posturing we've seen from Reid's political enemies and you have to ask, Harry, what were you thinking?!

That said; on the question of substance methinks Reid was more right than wrong.

First, the easy stuff. Are a lot of us wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts? I mean, is he or is he not the most gifted public speaker (of any race) most of us have ever seen? Um ... I'd say, yeah. Is "code-switching" - speaking one way before one audience and another way before a different audience - standard operating procedure for politicians of all stripes?

Negro, please!

Now, the tricky part. Was the country ready to embrace a black presidential candidate? Depends on what the meaning of "embrace" is. There's a big difference between claiming that "Obama's blackness was an actual net plus with voters" and saying that "Obama's blackness wasn't a fatal negative with voters." The second is obviously true; the first is questionable, at best. It's also far more plausible to suppose that Obama's race might have been a plus in the Democratic primaries than in the general election, given the demographic and ideological differences between the voters in each case.

The bigger point, though, is this: voters didn't throw some disembodied, decontextualized essence of blackness on the table in deciding whether or not to vote for Barack Obama last November. Rather, his racial identity, variously marked by blackness, biraciality, and ambiguity, was part of a complex mix of considerations that included the incumbent Republican president's dismal performance in office, a raft of scandals involving Republican lawmakers, Sarah Palin's poor command of the issues, rival John McCain's age and "erratic" campaign performances, and on and on. These and other factors tipped the scale in Obama's favor even among some voters who decidedly did not relish the idea of a black president.

What about the "light skinned" business? Were Obama's odds of being elected greater because he is a light-skinned rather than a dark-skinned black man? The answer is almost surely yes. The fact is that Americans show a clear preference for lighter-skinned African Americans. For example, we"re more likely to think candidates with lighter skin tones agree with us politically. Tests of beauty perceptions show that Americans prefer light-brown skin to darker skin or pale skin. Along the same lines, we like and trust "black English" speakers less than we do speakers of "standard English" (see also this). Indeed, African Americans who "sound black" earn 10 percent less than those who don't even after accounting for relevant differences between the two.

Let's just say people like Obama, Colin Powell, Eric Holder, and Halle Berry probably would have had an even harder time earning fame and fortune were their considerable talents and efforts contained in a darker package.

The greater, unremarked scandal in all this isn't what Reid said in 2008, it's what he just said in apology: "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments." Really, Harry Reid? Sure, the "Negro" reference is likely to be especially offensive to African Americans, but seems to me the thrust of his remarks are most obviously an indictment of "all Americans," and, probably, white Americans. After all, they're the ones he implicitly accused of being willing to make an important judgment on the basis of skin tone and speech patterns rather than substantive qualifications.

Let's be clear: light skin isn't inherently superior to dark skin, whether we're making intra or interracial comparisons. And as long as people have mastered whatever "dialect" they need to succeed in whatever context they find themselves, hard to see why one is inherently preferable to another. This wasn't Joe Biden plumping Obama as the "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Reid wasn't dissing black people. He was dissing us collectively. So why is he apologizing "especially" to black people?

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.