Harry Reid's "Negro" Problem

For those of us of the tan persuasion 2010 has really started off with a bang. First the census reminds us that in the age of the first black president, we still have the option of calling ourselves "Negro." Then Glenn Beck decries African-American as a "bogus, PC term." (This was particularly significant because, like many of you, when I think expert on racial issues, I immediately think Glenn Beck.) Then we had the Harry Reid revelation.

As every person who does not live under a rock now knows, according to the new book Game Change, during the 2008 election the Senate majority leader described then candidate Obama as potentially electable as a "light-skinned" African American who lacked a "Negro dialect" except for when he wanted to portray one. To his credit, Harry Reid did not do what many a politician in his position might have. He didn't deny saying it. He gets some points for that, although not too many.

Let's just get this out of the way. No, I do not think that Harry Reid's comment makes him a racist. (Another interesting tidbit from Game Change: that Reid was among those who personally lobbied Obama to run against Clinton in the 2008 primary.) If anything, while Reid's remark itself is problematic, the substance of the remark actually displays a measure of honesty about race in this country that is often lacking in our political discourse.

I have written before about the fact that historically, racial barriers in this country tend to be broken by lighter skinned minorities, (specifically those barriers in subjective fields, as opposed to purely objective ones like sports.) Those barriers range from the first popularly elected black United States Senator, Edward Brooke, to the first black Congressman elected in New York, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., (both of whom were fair enough to be confused for white), and the first and second black Miss Americas, Vanessa Williams and Suzette Charles, respectively. Recent studies confirm that color-ism can wreak some of the same havoc as racism. A 2004 study confirmed that fairer immigrants fair better in the workplace than those with darker complexions. However, if racism remains a touchy topic in this country color-ism is the equivalent of do-not-touch, period. It simply makes people too uncomfortable.

My point is that Reid wasn't entirely off his rocker when he alleged that Obama might fair better by being somewhat fairer. (Sorry. I promise to stop with that pun now.) We can all agree that Reid's word choice was poor. However, in my opinion the words Reid said are actually not as troubling as what they say about him.

As a black woman I could make being offended by things people say a full time job, but I choose not to. Instead, I always consider the source and consider the intent. For instance, during a college conference I met another student who was a Texas native like myself, but who unlike me had been raised in a town that was virtually devoid of minorities. So when he casually referred to another black woman as "colored," and continued chatting with me as though that were normal, I did not accuse him of being a card-carrying Klan member but instead considered the situation what one might call a teachable moment. On the other hand, under the right circumstances I'm sure Rush Limbaugh could manage to make the words African-American sound derogatory if he really wanted to. (And I'm pretty sure that he does.)

What troubles me about the Reid comments is that as someone who does not know the man personally I can't help but assume that he does not have a single black American in his life that he is genuinely close to and spends any real time of consequence with on a personal level. Because if he did, I find it hard to believe that such a gaffe would be possible. (Note: black people who are paid to spend time with Reid or anyone else, as employees, whether as nannies or office staff, do not count as close, personal, friends.)

I cannot count the number of times I have had conversations with close white friends who have simply asked me what I consider the appropriate term for a black American. (For the record, as you have probably noticed from this piece I tend to use black American and African-American interchangeably and am not bothered by either, nor do I feel particularly opinionated about it, but that's just me). My point is that my friends are conscientious of this because they are conscientious of me, and our relationship, and we talk about things like race. They would know not to use the word "Negro" the same way that I would know not to use the language that Jesse Jackson did during his first presidential campaign, to describe Jewish Americans, because I have close friends who are Jewish who have educated me accordingly. (Conversely, they have also educated me on the meaning of the word "shvatza" and I have seen them on more than one occasion, ready to put up dukes on my behalf when they thought someone had lobbed the word in my direction.)

It doesn't come as a surprise to me when someone like Glenn Beck admits to having no black friends (his expertise on the use of the term African-American notwithstanding.) But it never ceases to amaze and trouble me when yet another Democrat seems to make it clear that they don't spend a heck of a lot of time around the people they claim to want to help and represent. Let's not forget the criticism Sen. John Kerry faced for a lack of diversity among staff until late in the 2004 election (when he needed black votes), or Vice President Biden's infamous "articulate" and "clean" comment about his current boss, President Obama. Just as these men's words tell us a little something about them, Obama's swift willingness to not only forgive, but to essentially provide political cover for them -- and to even make Biden his Vice President -- speaks volumes about him.

Unlike the college student who referred to my kind as "colored" a few years ago, Harry Reid has had a lifetime to be exposed to various minorities, including the many he works with in the halls of congress. So ultimately, the fact that he still has a learning curve on something as simple as what word to use to describe black people, doesn't tell me that Harry Reid's a racist. But it does tell me that so far he's not been particularly interested in really getting to know black people beyond a superficial level.

There's nothing wrong with that.

Unless of course you're one of the leaders of what's supposed to be the party of diversity and inclusion.