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

Harry Reid: Where the Senate Majority Leader Went Wrong

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Over the weekend, another white guy stuck his foot in his mouth. This time, it was Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who during the past presidential election said that Barack Obama's "light-skinned" appearance and ability to speak "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" would bolster his bid for the presidency. He also added that Obama's race would help him more than it would hurt him in the election.

There are many problems with Reid's remarks, the most obvious being his use of the antiquated term Negro - the other "N" word. African Americans haven't referred to themselves as Negroes in decades, having rejected the term long ago for good reason. Aside from the thoughts of slavery and segregation that it conjures, it is devoid of real meaning. Above all else, it fails to connect African Americans to their ancestral homeland - the continent of Africa - which is the source of their cultural and social essence.

It's not race that makes African Americans unique; it's their African heritage. A small number of African Americans still self-identify as Negro, as evidenced by the 2000 census, but I'm willing to bet that they are almost all on the north side of 90-years-old. And as far as I'm concerned, any African American who has survived to see his and her nineties can call themselves whatever want.

Reid's use of Negro, however, is far less troubling than his other remarks. His reference to the political benefits of Obama's "light-skinned" appearance is particularly problematic because many Americans still associate dark complexion and classical African features with negative social characteristics such as low intelligence and criminality. Similarly, they associate light complexion with positive social characteristics, such as trustworthiness and beauty. Reid's comments, therefore, could easily be read to mean that Obama's "light-skinned" appearance would be an asset to him because he possessed characteristics that he would not otherwise have had his skin been darker.

Reid's remark about Obama's ability to speak "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" is just as troubling. Foremost, it assumes that the majority of African Americans are incapable of speaking grammatically correct English, speaking instead, perhaps, as 19th and 20th century black face minstrels, filling their sentences with "yes'ums," or maybe speaking as their 21st century Hollywood counterparts, adding "izzle" to the end of every word. Either way, the comment reflects and reinforces an old racist stereotype that prompts white people to act surprised when an African American conjugates a verb properly.

Finally, Reid's theory that Obama's race would help him more than it would hurt him was not borne out during the campaign. Obama had to spend $750 million in order for white voters to see past his race to his policies and personality. He had to work equally hard among black voters, who early in the campaign favored the familiar Hillary Clinton by wide margins over the unknown black candidate. Moreover, Reid's comment reflects the false assumption often tied to claims of reverse racism that being African American gives a person an advantage over more qualified white people, in this instance, Obama's white opponents, ignoring completely the persistence of personal and institutional racial bias that African Americans confront in all fields of endeavor.

There are, however, some kernels of truth in Reid's comments. Obama's mixed racial heritage very likely did make him visible to white voters who otherwise would not have considered him a viable candidate because of the persistence of negative racial stereotypes. And Obama's oratorical eloquence proved to be a tremendous asset on the campaign trail, inspiring people the world over. Unfortunately, these insights are lost in Reid's obtuse, simple-minded framing of the race-based issues a black candidate running for president has to face.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.