Saturday, January 9, 2010

Who was supposed to be offended?

The big non-story story in politics today regards Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. This is the AP rendition published in the Los Angeles Times:

Washington - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apologized Saturday for saying in 2008 that Barack Obama should seek -- and could win -- the White House because Obama was a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Let me try to break down what exactly was supposed to be offensive about that remark and who was supposed to be offended:

1. Barack Obama should seek -- and could win -- the White House ... That is obviously a huge compliment. No one in his right-mind finds that offensive;

2. Obama (is) a "light-skinned" African American ... That is an accurate description of the president's complexion. The comment implies that a dark-skinned black would face more prejudice from fellow Americans. That is probably true. Even if it's factually wrong, it is not offensive to think dark-skinned black-Americans face more prejudice than the light-skinned encounter;

3. Obama (speaks English) "with no Negro dialect." ... Again, that is true. Obviously, the term "Negro" is old-fashioned. But it is not patently offensive. Given that Harry Reid is 70 years old and that was surely the term most blacks called themselves during Reid's formative years, he can be excused for using a dated word like "Negro";

4. Obama (speaks English) "with no Negro dialect." ... Is it offensive to notice that there is such a thing as a black-American dialect and imply that a candidate who speaks in that dialect would have more trouble than one who speaks standard American English winning over mainstream America in a national election? No. Everyone knows that Ebonics exists and that manner of speaking is not mainstream and would hamstring any black candidate trying to win over many white-American voters; and

5. Obama (speaks English) "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." ... The inference I take from that is that Reid thinks Obama has put on a "black voice" at times. I have never heard Obama do that. However, it's not impossible to believe. I have known a number of black-Americans who consider themselves "bilingual," able to speak in a black dialect when the setting and company calls for that and at other times speak standard English. Unless Obama has never done that, the comment strikes me as one of fact, rather than one intended to offend.

Taken as a whole, Reid did nothing wrong. More importantly, Reid is a friend and ally of Obama's and there is no reason to think he had any ill intentions.
Obama quickly accepted the apology, saying, "As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."

Politically, President Obama's response is probably correct. However, I would prefer he said, "Harry Reid is not a racist; he didn't intend to offend anyone; he didn't offend me; and he has no reason to apologize for his comments."
"I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans," he said, "for my improper comments."

Politicians are the ultimate grovellers, so there is no reason to be surprised that Sen. Reid would grovel in this way. I wish, however, that some well known African-Americans will publicly say, "No sensible black-Americans find anything Harry Reid said about Barack Obama offensive."
Reid's office said he had also phoned to apologize to civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights chief Wade Henderson; as well as veteran political operative Donna Brazile. Reid also spoke with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), both African Americans.

"The Senator doth apologize too much, methinks."

EDIT: This morning (Sunday) on NBC's "Meet the Press," Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele weighed in on the "Negro dialect" question, calling on Harry Reid to resign. Here is the NY Times account:
Steele, the Republican Party chairman, called Sunday for Harry Reid to step down as U.S. Senate majority leader in the wake of revelations of Mr. Reid’s remarks in 2008 about Barack Obama’s skin color and dialect.

Mr. Steele, who is black, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that an apology was not enough and “there has to be a consequence” for “anachronistic language that harkens backs to the 1950’s and 1960’s.”

“There’s a big double standard here,” Mr. Steele said. “When Democrats get caught saying racist things, you know an apology is enough.”

Never mind, Mr. Steele, that Sen. Reid did not say anything racist. Anachronistic, yes. Racist, no.
Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, was among the black leaders who received a call from Mr. Reid. Mr. Clyburn said that Mr. Reid should be judged on the merits of his record to respond to diversity and to advance the president’s agenda.


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