Harry's "Washington Gaffe"

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Every so often, I wake up knowing exactly the column I'm going to write. Only to find out, upon browsing around, that someone else has written it for me. Today was one of those days.

Harry Reid's situation seemed to me to be a perfect opportunity for him to follow in Chris Dodd's footsteps, and announce that -- after healthcare reform legislation is successfully put on Barack Obama's desk to sign -- Harry Reid would be stepping down as Senate Majority Leader, and giving someone else a shot at it. My reasoning had very little to do with the recently-revealed gaffe from Reid.

But, as I said, someone else had already said exactly what I was going to say, so I will direct you to Dylan Loewe's excellent article today up on Huffington Post, and you can read it for yourself. Loewe made exactly the points I was going to make, used exactly the reasoning I would have, and did it in probably about one-third the space I would have taken. So I have to take my hat off to him, and say "Well done!" And encourage everyone else to read his article.

So please don't read the rest of this article as a defense of Harry Reid, for sheer political reasons. Reid has a few political options now, none of which have much to do with what he said to a reporter during the 2008 presidential campaign: he can stick it out, hoping for an upset victory which would allow him to remain Majority Leader; he can step down from the leadership position, campaign as just another senator in the midterms; or he can announce he will not be running this year, and give another Democrat a shot at his Senate seat. My preference would actually be for that last one, but my political instincts tell me that he'll run and not step down from his leadership spot, choosing instead to "tough it out," and hoping that he can spend enough during the campaign to convince Silver State voters to send him back to Washington.

Instead I would like to deconstruct what Harry actually reportedly said that caused the furor in the first place. Because, with the exception of one poorly-chosen word, it seems to me to fit the classic definition of a "Washington gaffe" -- accidentally speaking a bald truth, and having to immediately apologize for such unseemliness.

Let's separate the two, and take a look at the poorly-chosen word first, and then take an overall look at his statements with a bit of badly-needed context. First, the full quote from the new tell-all political book which raised the controversy in order to sell more books (which is why I refuse to name them here, the authors having had enough publicity already, it seems to me):

He [Harry 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.

The word "Negro" fairly jumps off the page there (or, more accurately for my readers, "off the screen") when casually reading that sentence. That is because it is the year 2010.

Time is an important part of this discussion. Because, over time, terminology which was originally intended to be "polite" and "genteel" and "proper" usually migrates (in the mouths of racists) into becoming a negative term or slur, which is then slowly abandoned as a "polite" term, in favor of a more-politically-correct term (which will also then follow the same cycle). The speed at which this happens differs, depending on the usage and depending on the minority group being spoken of. In fifty years, I can easily see an American politician castigated for using the newly-offensive term "African-American," for instance. The wheel turns, in other words. Or perhaps, "the wheel turns towards other words."

A good example is the fact that nowhere in America could a sports team decide to name itself "The Blackskins"... and yet, Washington, D.C.'s football team is quite comfortable still using such terminology when it refers to Native Americans (who don't have nearly the political power of other groups).

Even in our so-called modern and enlightened age, Native Americans are routinely referred to in terminology which harkens back to about where African-Americans were in the 1950s. For the most part, we don't even bat an eyelid when it happens, either.

The head of the Republican Party, for example, just used the term "Honest Injun!" in a broadcast interview last week, which didn't stop him from calling for Harry Reid to resign his leadership post this past weekend. The phrase "off the reservation" is routinely used in American politics, and again, nobody bats an eyelid when it happens.

The terminology for those of African ancestry here in America has changed over the years. Negro was originally the "polite" term to use, post-Civil-War, rather than the racially-charged term which preceded it (and which is deemed so offensive today that editorial standards dictate only referring to it with the euphemism: "the N-word"). Up until perhaps World War II, the term "Negro" was embraced by the group to which it referred. In the early 1930s, it was even officially capitalized in both the media and by the federal government, as a result of pressure from the black community.

The word-of-choice soon changed, though, and the following words (as well as others, this should not be seen as a complete list) went through their own time of being favored: colored, black (or, sometimes: Black), Afro-American, African American (sometimes: African-American), and person of color. Today, any person not part of the group being referred to (from, for instance, a white guy such as myself) very carefully chooses what term to use. "African American" is the most common, followed by "black," especially as a modifier (the "black vote" or "black presidential candidate" for instance).

But even "African American" has its problems. I know a teacher in the D.C. suburbs who routinely (due to the embassies located in the area) is confronted by students who demand which racial box they should check. "I'm not an American!" they protest, being from the Caribbean or from Africa itself. "Why don't I have a box?" Well, because we mixed up geography in our "correct" racial terminology, sorry about that.

So Harry Reid appeared out of date, and out of touch, by saying "Negro dialect." But the episode wasn't without irony. When the first reports surfaced over the weekend, Reid's quote was paired with denunciations from various members of the N.A.A.C.P. -- without ever pointing out that they themselves are using a term just as old-fashioned, and just as offensive to some within their group's very name! "Colored" is what the "C" stands for, and yet nobody bothered to point out just how out of date that particular word is nowadays.

Times change, and sometimes a "brand" becomes so ingrained that it never changes, even while the language around it does.

Let's go back and try Reid's statement again, with this one word updated, and see what the rest of the fuss was all about:

He 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 black dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he later put it privately.

The rest of Reid's problem stems from two other phrases in the quote: "light-skinned," and "dialect." Neither, it should be pointed out, is a "slur." Both are actual facts, which people on all sides would agree with, if stated outside of political speech: Barack Obama, being half-white, is indeed lighter-skinned than some other African-Americans; and there is indeed a "dialect" which is associated with African-Americans.

Going further, Reid isn't really saying anything shocking here, because he is being honest (see above: "Washington gaffe"). Remember, this comes in the context of Reid being proud he backed Obama very early on, and praising Barack Obama's electability factor. Reid said that he considered Obama's chances with the American electorate at large to be better because he had lighter skin than some African-Americans. And that Obama did not use black dialect, unless he chose to -- and that, again, his chances of being elected were greater as a result.

These might be controversial subjects, but it is pretty hard to argue that Reid is, sadly, right about both. Obama being half-white, and Obama being raised to speak in (if anything) a Kansas accent probably did help convince a certain segment of white voters that Obama was "safe enough" to vote for. As I said, this reflects quite a number of ugly realities in America on the subject of race, but seen as purely election-season handicapping of politics, it's hard to argue that Reid was wrong on either count.

In other words, it might indeed be offensive that a lighter-skinned African-American who spoke without a black accent has a better chance of winning the presidency in America today. But is it really offensive to point this out? Isn't the truly offensive thing that Harry's probably right? Even if he was inarticulate in how he chose to put it?

But that's where the problem really lies. Because the quandary any white person faces when even bringing up the subject of race is that there are simply too many pitfalls and landmines strewn about the linguistic landscape to even know how to begin the conversation. Which leads, in many cases, to abandoning such efforts before they are even begun -- "it's safer not to even talk about it" becomes the smart choice.

And that is a shame, because if the conversation itself -- the dialog and the concepts involved, and not just the language used -- becomes so fraught with the possibility of offending someone, then the conversation simply will not happen at all.

Which, sadly, appears to be the lesson all politicians are taking away from the entire episode. Meaning such things will continue to be said, but not in public.

Now, I'm not really defending Harry Reid here, or what he said. That's up to Harry to do. But I do have to say that Republican leader Michael Steele doth protest a wee bit too much on the issue. Here is Steele, from a few months back, on a radio call-in show:

CALLER: It's just like the L.A. Times said last year, or two years ago -- he [Obama] is "the magic Negro."

STEELE: Yeah he is -- [laughter]. You read that too, huh?

Funny how Steele didn't immediately denounce the caller, or have some fit of pique about it later, isn't it? Which, together with his recent "Honest Injun!" comment, shows what a flaming hypocrite he truly is, as he attempts to make as much political hay out of this as is humanly possible.

But none of this, Steele's hypocrisy included, changes the political reality Reid now faces. He was down in the polls, and that was before this story broke. Now, Nevada is only about 8% African-American (or "Black," as the census lists the group), meaning that it's less of a factor than in states where that percentage is higher. At the same time, when you're down so far in the polls, any bad news can be enough to put re-election out of grasp. Which is why I agree with the notion that Harry would do his own party a lot of good by turning the reins over to some other Democrat in the Senate, if not deciding to retire altogether. But then (to be scrupulously honest), I thought that last Thursday, too, before the Reid gaffe story broke.

But as for Harry's scandalous comments (and with apologies in advance to William Shakespeare), methinks those loudly protesting are making much ado about very little indeed. Because "Negro" is simply not that derogatory a term, unless uttered with clearly derogatory intent or context. I keep wondering if someone will chime in on the debate from the wonderful organization whose sole purpose is to fund higher education for African-Americans. You know -- the one with the slogan: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Because it might put the controversy in a little different perspective to have a spokesman join in the debate from the United Negro College Fund.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant