04/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Assigning Value to Race: The Reid-Matthews Dilemma

For many White Americans the issue of race is a no-win discussion. Indiscriminate words and phrases uttered in racially mixed company can make a person vulnerable to attack, even if the underlying message is meant to be positive. Such disfavored discourse can cost a politician voter support; a journalist or radio talk show host may lose their job.

Yet, the issue of race is of growing importance in a melting pot of Americans whose individual values can no longer be easily determined by the power of one dominant group. Archaic ideals assigned to color, language and dialect are today being justifiably threatened. Still, misguided notions and remnants of slave and Civil Rights-era racial attitudes persist in America.

2010-01-31-images-ReidMatthews.jpg The latest symptoms of latent racist standards from bygone eras were revealed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Senator Harry Reid. Both innocently exposed personal perspectives and erroneously attributed the lens through which they perceive race as indicative of the views of most Americans.

Reid meant what he said in 2008 about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in the most complimentary way possible. His recently revealed comments were the primary promotional tease for the book Game Change, by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:

"[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 apologized on Jan. 9 for his comments despite a litany of Black leaders, including President Obama, rushing to his rescue. The president said as far as he was concerned the "book was closed" even as a number of Black journalists and pundits sought to explain Reid's remarks. No one seemed interested in probing Reid for his own interpretation of what a "Negro dialect" is and why it, along with dark skin were devalued attributes.

Matthews resurrected the dying controversy before it could be buried and forgotten. MSNBC's celebrated analyst expressed amazement that he could watch President Barack Obama during the State of the Union Address on Jan. 27 and not ruminate over the color of his skin. For Chris Matthews, it was a profound moment:

"I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about. I was watching, I said, wait a minute, he's an African American guy in front of a bunch of other white people. And here he is president of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight -- completely forgotten it.

I think it was in the scope of his discussion. It was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems, of aspects, and aspects of American life that you don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard. A very subtle fact. It's so hard to talk about. Maybe I shouldn't talk about it, but I am. I thought it was profound that way."

The problem Reid and Matthews disclosed is their personal failures to recognize the value they inadvertently assign to black skin color and dialect. The message they both sent was that the color of Obama's skin can be overlooked or forgotten, given the strength of his cerebral energy and oratory skills. The reason that Obama's skin color must be mitigated at all is due to the poor value placed on it. That fact gets lost in the hyperbole used in describing Obama.

Matthews proclaimed that Obama was "post-racial" and even suggested the president was white.

"I said, wait a minute, he's an African American guy in front of a bunch of other white people."

The word "other" may have been a Freudian slip. But in the context of Matthew's overall statement, it is telling. He went on to exclaim how he was beyond thinking in terms of "tribalism" and "ethnicity," as though those terms are interchangeable with "race." For some, the point may have resonated. But for millions of Americans who do not think in terms of "tribalism" when they see a Black American, it was insight into the mindset of Matthews and others like him.

As he effused over Obama, Matthews failed to realize he was only disclosing his normal mode of thought process, given his awe-inspired amnesia lasted for only an hour. Although Matthews attributed his personal revelation as representative of a broader American perspective -- "we've completely forgotten" -- the reality is that Matthews can only speak for Matthews. His profound personal experience, however, may indeed be symptomatic of progressive perspectives across the nation that deserves to be explored in a national dialogue.

The issue of race remains an American taboo topic mostly avoided across color lines. Yet, the subject is deeply rooted in the national psyche and freely discussed in safe harbors among homogeneous groups.

There are no written rules for racial repartee. No map exists to chart a safe course through the stormy seas of racial discourse. There is no widespread protective measure by which the issue of race can be discussed openly and honestly -- providing participants with insight and understanding while leaving them unscathed. It is a course fraught with danger if navigated haphazardly.

Race relations also cannot be adequately discussed in the vacuum of present-day perspectives. The myth of racial perceptions and assigned values are rooted in history and stem from a powerful system of social and economic class ... or caste. Still, the growing diversity and power of minority racial groups in America require an evolution of old ideas.

The power of mass influence within media and politics has long been used to frame the national perspective on race and the values assigned to individuals and groups based upon skin color. It is no accident that the symptoms of underlying struggles and tension regarding race continue to emerge on both the political landscape and in media. Diversity is a difficult concept for media executives to ascribe greater value. But the political landscape is gradually changing to reflect the declining dominance of an elite White power structure. And the issues surrounding values arbitrarily assigned to skin color can no longer be ignored.

The dilemma Reid and Matthews present to the nation is profound. The thought of a national dialogue on race may be unappealing, but without common understanding we lose the ability to relate to one another honestly without inadvertently creating discord that detracts from the important issues of the day.