The release of the book Game Change by Washington reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin has set tongues wagging on a number of topics but the topic that has captured much of today’s dialog is a quote attributed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Apparently, in assessing then Senator Barack Obama’s chances at a successful presidential run, Reid said it was advantageous that Obama was “light-skinned” with “no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one”. While a truck load of folks are unhappy with Reid’s choice of words, the overwhelming majority of Democrats have come to his defense and Barack Obama himself has given Harry a pass on this. This in turn, has conservatives fuming about a double standard saying that had a Republican uttered these phrases, he would have been forced to resign. Former Republican Senator Trent Lott is used as the example. My fellow blogger Blackiswhite, Imperial Consigliere argues this point much to my dismay. But he asks another question in his post that deserves further examination.
Let’s dispense first with the ridiculous Reid-Lott equivalency argument. I’ve gone back and read Lott’s explanation of the faux pas that got him in hot water back in 2002. In celebrating the 100 year birthday of then South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott delivered a toast in which he reminded the audience of Mississippi’s support of Thurmond’s presidential candidacy back in 1948. The cornerstone of Thurmond’s platform was segregation. Lott said, “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.” Now it isn’t a stretch to surmise that Lott was endorsing Thurmond’s segregationist ways. The best spin we can give this (and Lott’s own spin for that matter) is that essentially Lott was patronizing the old man at his birthday celebration with a general slap on the back that was not meant to be analyzed as a serious political statement.
The reason the Lott-Reid equivalency is intellectually bankrupt has nothing to do with the intent of the individuals making their respective comments. Lott may indeed have not even considered that his statement could be interpreted as longing for the good old days of white and black water fountains. The issue is not about intent, it is about the reaction triggered by the statement. Regardless of what Lott meant to say, the interpretation was ugly. Interestingly, Reid apologized for his choice of words but has not apologized for the meaning of his words. And he need not apologize for the meaning of his words since there is no way that anyone speaking the English language can interpret Reid’s comment as a dislike for black people.
In fact, Harry Reid told the truth. We might not like it but he told the truth. Both within the “black community” and outside it, there is discrimination based on skin color. Yes, even some blacks are stupid enough to attach value to skin color. And when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asks with full outrage “what is a black dialect”, every honest person knows he is full of crap. A black dialect is like pornography. I cannot describe it to you but I know it when I hear it, and so does every other honest person. You want a good “test” of a black dialect? Listen to someone on the phone and try to guess if they are black or white. For some people (not all) the test is quite easy. Granted some of what we associate as black dialect is really southern. A large component of Jesse Jackson’s speech pattern is southern. But I’m sorry folks, when you hear Jesse on the radio you know with 95% certainty he is black. And again, some in our society (both white and black) associate ignorance (and at worst, menace) with a black dialect. The same goes for dark skin. Have we forgotten the brouhaha inspired by the Time Magazine cover of OJ Simpson that many said had been darkened to make him look more menacing?
Harry Reid spoke the truth that the best way to get a black man into the White House was to pick one who “sounded white” and who had some white background. These two traits could make Obama palatable to soft-core bigots. So on the face of it, Trent Lott spoke (possibly malicious) conjecture and Reid spoke truth with no malicious intent. End of story.
But with all that said, there is a bigger question to address that my friend Blackiswhite, Imperial Consigliere broaches in his article:
Who are these “black leaders” that people not of color keep having to make amends to when they have been declared of some sort of racial transgression? Who elected them? Do we all get to choose? And if not, how is that equality? How did Harry know who to call? Do they publish a directory? I realize that this may sound somewhat ridiculous, and I might be making too much light of what should be serious questions, but I think it is long past time to have an honest conversation about race on this particular subject. Who are these individuals to accept an apology for racist remarks about one person? And if it were about more than one person, the question remains the same. I don’t remember taking part in any decision to elect white leaders to accept apologies from members of other ethnic and racial groups who make racist remarks about white people.
To my Imperial friend, I say one thing: you are absolutely right.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Joe Scarborough asked black Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart his opinion on the Reid fiasco. Capehart responded, and I paraphrase here, “Well, as the lone ambassador of the black race …” and he chuckled. You see, while Capehart didn’t want to really nail Joe, he was hinting that Joe’s directing the question at him was in itself racist. Why on Earth should Jonathan Capehart be expected to speak for black people? Why should I as a black man be expected to do the same? Why should anyone? And on the flip side, how arrogant it is of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to think they speak for black people. While I agree with some of what each has had to say over the years, neither speaks for me. This leads me to the ultimate revelation of absurdity:
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BLACK PEOPLE! Sorry all you proud sista’s and brotha’s but I’ve said it and I don’t take it back. The laptop I am typing on right now is black. I have never met anyone whose skin matches that color. I have met native Africans and no, even the darkest of them are lighter in tone than my laptop. Similarly, I have never met a man whose skin was white like a piece of paper or a cloud. Albinos come close perhaps. This distinction that 99% of our society buys into is totally absurd. Let’s look at some of the other phrases:
Negro — Spanish for black and coming from a latin root meaning black. Again, categorizing people by color, which is preposterous.
Colored — I’ve got news for you, we’re ALL colored.
African-American — This one at least shares the same preoccupation with regional origin that Italian-American or Polish-American does.
The bottom line is that our society has created a truly meaningless classification system that says nothing about its members. Heck, as Obama, Harold Ford Jr. and I prove, it doesn’t even say anything about the skin color of its members. The black/white distinction is totally preposterous yet it is embraced by both so-called blacks and so-called whites.
Harry Reid’s comments remind us that we have a society preoccupied with stupidity. Skin color is meaningless. We all know it yet we cling to it. So-called black speech rhythms which owe themselves more to southern heritage than anything else are equally meaningless. What is important is what is said, not the meter of speech. (By the way, this is not a defense of ebonics which I will leave for another article … ebonics is the most intellectually perverse degradation of the so-called black community to come down the pike.)
How do we talk about race? The more I think about it, the more I think the actor Morgan Freeman got it right in an interview with Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” many years ago. He said the way to handle race is to STOP talking about it. It is sheer foolishness that says nothing about the individuals being labeled. I’ll leave you with that nugget of wisdom and prepare to take my shots in the comments section.